KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- Years of insecurity marked by constant battles between insurgents and Afghan security forces have paved the way for gun-toting militia to torment civilians by imposing illegal taxes, criminality, and atrocities.
Civilians in the restive northeastern province of Kunduz say authorities in the region have failed to disarm thousands of armed men whose livelihoods now mostly depend on extortion, kidnappings, and murders.
Most of them were originally armed by the government in the name of creating Arbakis, a local term for volunteers providing security to their communities. Many, if not most, have now morphed into illegal armed bands who typically survive and thrive on criminality but ostensibly claim to be fighting the insurgents.
Locals in Kunduz typically refer to them as “illegal armed men” to distinguish them from the security forces and insurgents.
Ghulam Sakhi, a resident of Khanabad district, which is next to the provincial capital, also called Kunduz, says the armed men are often related to powerful local warlords or militia commanders.
“We think the government is very weak and not interested in disarming these gunmen or helping civilians to live peaceful and safe lives,” he said. “We used to estimate there were at least 2,000 illegal armed men in Khanabad, but that number has now risen to more than 3,000.”
The rich agricultural district has repeatedly changed hands between government forces and the insurgents. Following the departure of most international forces as part of a NATO drawdown at the end of 2014, Kunduz turned into a major battleground. The Taliban’s resurgence in Kunduz was marked by their brief takeover of the provincial capital in September 2015.
Such instability has proved fertile ground for all kinds of shadowy characters to prosper. Another Khanabad resident, Abdul Ghani, says an atmosphere of absolute fear now pervades Khanabad.
“Our market is now closed because nobody wants to face these gunmen,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Farmers across Kunduz say illegal militias prey on their livelihoods and extort money or take away a portion of their produce in the name of Islamic taxes such as Zakat and Usher.
The presence of a large number of militants mostly associated with the Taliban in the Kunduz countryside compounds this problem. They compete with the illegal gunmen, who are mostly nominally affiliated with Arbakis.
Tooryali, a farmer in Khanabad who like many Afghans goes by one name only, says the gunmen force them to pay Usher, which is a 10 percent levy on agricultural produce.
“Whenever our rice or wheat harvests are ready, the gunmen arrive and demand their share in the name of collecting Usher. If we refuse, they threaten us and force us to give them our produce,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Zalmay, another Khanabad farmer, says years of government neglect has empowered their tormentors.
“They are extremely well-armed. If you refuse to obey them, they will beat you and can even imprison and torture you in their private dungeons,” he said.
Lawmaker Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, says illegal armed gangs pose a greater risk to local security and stability than the Taliban and militants associated with the Islamic State (IS).
“The Taliban and IS are our clear enemies, but these illegal armed men carry out murders, robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes under the umbrella of the government,” he said, pointing out the relative freedom these gunmen enjoy because of their status of ostensibly fighting the insurgents. “The government needs to swiftly act to end their impunity.”
Hayatullah Amiri, the district governor of Khanabad, acknowledges the problem but says his petitions to senior officials in the capital, Kabul, have never been met with a concrete response.
“I have reported these issues to the National Security Council. I think the ministers of defense and interior and the director of our spy agency could approve a new policy to address this problem,” he said.
A commander of these Arbakis who requested anonymity because of security fears, however, says their work is vital in helping government forces to take on the insurgents.
“The government has not helped us one bit. If the authorities could give us salaries and absorb us into the ranks of the security forces, we would stop extorting civilians,” he said.
Kunduz Governor Asadullah Omarkhel says they have had enough of the scourge of these bands.
“Anyone who is armed but not part of our security forces’ personnel is an enemy of the government and the people,” he said.
Provincial police chief Hamidullah Hamidi says they plan to take action against the armed groups.
“We are soon going to act against those who are carrying illegal arms and tormenting civilians,” he said.
But for the more than 250,000 residents of Kunduz, such pledges have often been made by officials while armed gangs only gain strength and double down on their predatory behavior.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ajmal Aryan in Kunduz, Afghanistan.