Back to militias, the chaotic Afghan way of war

Mr Omid Wahidi (second from left) with other militia recruits at a compound near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, July 11, 2021.
Mr Omid Wahidi (second from left) with other militia recruits at a compound near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, July 11, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN (NYTIMES) - Mr Omid Wahidi was born after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. His childhood, for the most part, was peaceful.

Mr Wahidi carries an assault rifle now - the Kalashnikov that over the past two generations of conflict in Afghanistan has become a grim fixture. The weapon is likely twice his age, but he carries it as if he knows it, even though the first time he pulled the trigger in battle was only weeks ago.

The rifle that erased the last vestiges of Mr Wahidi's childhood is a by-product of the past two months of alarm as a Taleban offensive swept across the country.

Mr Wahidi is one of the many Afghans who have been swept up in a militia recruitment drive as government forces have struggled to keep the Taleban at bay.

Hundreds of volunteers have taken up arms around Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern economic hub near where Mr Wahidi lives, to protect their homes - and, knowingly or not, the business interests of the warlords and power brokers who are organising the militia movement.

These militias are not new. But what has happened across the country in these recent weeks - championed by Afghan leaders - is a new mutation that many fear is an all-too-close echo of the way Afghanistan fell into civil war in the 1990s.

None of what has been happening bodes well for the continuation of the empowered and centralised national government that the US and its allies tried to install here.

The militias that have formed around Mazar-i-Sharif and other places across the north over the past two months are arrayed in a kind of loose, defensive belt, supplementing the government forces that have not retreated or surrendered.

The Taleban have eased off some of their attacks in recent days, but it is hard to tell whether the militias had anything to do with that. The militias' presence in the field is almost carnival-like. They move in a hodgepodge of vehicles - some private, others commandeered from Afghan units that fled.

Around Mazar-i-Sharif, especially, local forces have preyed on the community by recruiting young men for militias that operate without government approval. Sometimes they are tricked into defending outposts with little hope of payment.