Afghan militias and policemen gather as they discuss during a battle at the Chardara district of Kunduz
By Feroz Sultani and Kay Johnson
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan/KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan government has enlisted hundreds of militia fighters controlled by local commanders to battle Taliban militants near the northern city of Kunduz, officials said, underlining how the armed forces are struggling to tackle the insurgency alone.
The recruitment of unofficial armed groups in Kunduz is on a larger scale than previous attempts by the government and NATO forces to recruit militias in the fight against the Taliban.
It may also signal a compromise of sorts for President Ashraf Ghani's administration, which had been trying to curb the influence of so-called "mujahideen" strongmen who held key positions in former President Hamid Karzai's government.
Ghani's spokesman, Ajmal Abidy, denied that the Kunduz recruitment amounted to re-arming mujahideen militias.
"What is being considered is selective voluntary citizens' participation in the defense of the country against terrorists," he said in a statement.
The Taliban's weeks-long siege of Kunduz has involved thousands of militants and brought the insurgents closer to capturing a major city than at any time in years.
The scale of the assault and the inability of Afghan forces to repel it is particularly worrying, because it comes just a few months after NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan.
Western governments have spent more than $60 billion on getting Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ready to secure the country once NATO troops withdrew.
Kunduz Governor Mohammad Omar Safi said that, as of this week, Taliban militants held positions on the city's outskirts and there were skirmishes daily. An operation to drive the insurgents out has been pending for two weeks.
Turning for help to so-called "mujahideen", a loose term for fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the Taliban's hard-line regime the following decade, is an obvious solution for many in the government.
"ANSF are capable of providing security, but these people know the area better and they are more useful," said Safi.
He told Reuters that about 1,000 fighters led by dozens of ex-mujahideen commanders had been recruited and given ammunition and money in recent weeks. Another 1,000 militiamen were on standby, he added.
The militias are backing an army and police presence that was as high as 12,000 in recent weeks, although it may be less now, according to military officials.
RISKS OF MORE LAWLESSNESS
While calling on the support of former mujahideen groups may make sense in Kunduz, experts said it could backfire by entrenching militia commanders, some of whom have been accused of human rights abuses over recent decades.
Critics said historic rivalries between groups could also reignite, leading to more violence and lawlessness in Afghanistan.
"They (militia fighters) really answer to strongmen in the area and not to a standard, disciplined chain of command," said Patti Gossman, an Afghanistan analyst for Human Rights Watch.
Afghanistan is led by a unity government headed by Ghani that came together after months of squabbling over election fraud.
Many mujahideen supported Ghani's election rival Abdullah Abdullah, who is now his chief executive, and during the political crisis some prominent commanders threatened to revolt against Kabul if their candidate was not named president.
Creating new layers of forces beyond the ANSF, which is made up of the army and national and local police, could mean more instability, said Thomas Ruttig of Afghanistan Analysts Network.
"At the moment, these militia commanders might support the government. But we don't know what they will do next week."
Afghanistan's private militias were supposed to have been disbanded in the years after U.S.-backed military action toppled the Taliban in 2001, but many ex-mujahideen commanders retained arms and fighters.
In addition to mujahideen groups, both the U.S.-led military coalition and Afghanistan's intelligence agency have fostered independent, localized "uprising" village defense units in areas plagued by the Taliban.
Human rights groups have documented abuses both by "uprising" units and mujahideen militias.
Kunduz governor Safi, though, said he was sure the government could keep fighters loyal, and that by recruiting militias, Kabul might in fact be able to control them better.
"A large number of them (mujahideen militias) were unhappy with the government, so we tried to bring them into an organized framework," Safi said.
For militia fighters in Kunduz, the call to arms feels overdue; prominent mujahideen commanders have felt sidelined by Ghani's government.
"We have waited for a long time for the government to push back the insurgents, but it didn't happen," said Masood Chardara, a former mujahideen commander who says he is leading 100 gunmen on the front lines in Talawka district on the city's outskirts.
"The government came forward and asked us to help them to root them (the Taliban) out. We had some old weapons, and the government gave us some new ones."
Another local ex-mujahideen, Mahbubullah, said his fighting force of several dozen men was proving effective in Kunduz.
"So far we have killed dozens of Taliban, and this is continuing," said Mahbubullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)