In September, Human Rights Watch released a scathing report on the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a paramilitary institution under control of the Minister of Interior and being trained by US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.[1]  The report highlighted accusations of violence, thievery, and corruption that plague the ALP and continue to raise questions of long-term viability as Afghanistan and the US prepare for the 2014 transition. As of September there were roughly 7,500 ALP spread throughout 46 districts, with an anticipated expansion to 30,000. Accusations of lawlessness and indiscriminate violence can be problematic for a weak Afghan state attempting to quell an insurgency and link rural populations with a fledgling government. This essay argues that a number of historical lessons from more violent and harsh counterinsurgencies should be kept in mind as the ALP program expands. These lessons suggest that paramilitary groups require: 1) supervision from state sponsors; 2) broad and deep cutting institutional reach; and 3) support from path dependent models.

Historical and exogenous lessons abound of state-led initiatives to devolve security to the local level. Many point to counterinsurgency examples in Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, and more recently the Sons of Iraq.  However, this essay diverges from traditional examples to assess other conflicts such as Indonesia, East Timor, Sudan, and Kenya to see what lessons can be gleaned from comparatively less studied conflicts. It should be noted that not all lessons can or should be transferred from one region to another. The successes and failures of counterinsurgency are often based upon local and unique dynamics that may not be replicable. Furthermore, these cases certainly do not present the best comparisons in terms of similarity, however, it can equally be argued that there are few cases in counterinsurgency that are similar enough to draw qualitative comparison at the scholarly level. That does not imply this to be wasted effort; instead it serves as a useful opportunity to draw out important practical lessons for current operational and strategic imperatives.

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“Formalizing the Informal: Historical Lessons on Local Defense in Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 7:10, 2011.