Inside the Shadowy Militias Luring Unsuspecting Afghans to Fight, or Die

Afghanistan’s poor are being deceived into defending outposts from the Taliban, sometimes under the guise of construction work — a scheme partially bankrolled by the government.

A network of shadowy power brokers and warlords, bankrolled by the Afghan government and the national police force, is luring disadvantaged people into joining militias, sometimes under false pretenses, out of a growing desperation to hold territory around highways in the country’s north, according to former militia members and local officials.

These key arteries, which are the few means of road travel between the provinces, have increasingly become the front line for an emboldened Taliban insurgency. To protect them, local officials in Balkh Province are manning highway outposts with often untrained Afghans, who are given little more than a rifle and the promise of a paycheck if they survive. Others have been offered construction jobs, only to arrive and realize there is no repair work to be done.

The militia members are dropped in areas too dangerous to flee and only picked up weeks or months later, dead or alive.

The crooked recruitment practice is the latest indication that Afghanistan’s security forces have been hollowed out by degrading morale and poor recruitment as Taliban attacks continue at an unrelenting pace across the country.

It also signals a resurgence of warlordism, a distinct echo of a past civil war when the country was fractured into territories ruled over by strongmen and a disturbing warning of where the country’s future may lead as peace negotiations in Qatar stall and a possible complete American withdrawal is just months away.

Interviews with more than a dozen local officials, former militia members, security officers, family members and even some of the commanders who acknowledged their involvement uncovered details about the militia network and the quiet support it is receiving from those in high levels of the Afghan government. They also revealed the toll taken on the families whose loved ones are being recruited to their deaths.

“My son lacks any military experience, he is disabled,” said Sayed Mir, whose son Jawed nearly died at an outpost after being shot in the neck. “He is not someone who should be taken to war.”

Balkh Province was once one of the most stable provinces in the country. Its position along the border with Uzbekistan and on a key trade route from Turkmenistan lifted the local economy after the U.S. invasion in 2001. But in recent years, stability there has steadily declined as the government in Kabul has struggled with controlling provincial leadership and supplying the north with a sufficient number of security forces.

In July 2020, Sayid Jawad, a resident of Balkh, thought he had been hired to rebuild a government outpost destroyed by Taliban attacks for $150 a month, the kind of money he hadn’t earned in a long time.

At the base roughly 15 miles from his home in Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr. Jawad, 27, soon realized there was nothing in need of repair. A day later, he was handed a Kalashnikov and received a simple order over the radio from the district governor: Fight or die.

“I asked them if we were here to do construction work or get killed,” Mr. Jawad said.