Afghan Territorial Army (ATA)

Afghan Territorial Army (ATA)

The Afghan Territorial Army (ATA) is a new program that recently made the headlines in the international media in late 2017. The intent of the Afghan government, with support from NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, is to establish a local defense force that will assist in consolidating gains made by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).

Purpose of the ATA. The new force is expected to stabilize areas ‘cleared’ by Afghan security forces and to assist in the establishment of law and order. In addition, it may contribute to adding some control to the existing local non-governmental militia groups. Currently the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) conduct 80% of the offensive operations of the ANDSF. As soon as the Afghan special operations forces ‘clear’ an area of insurgents the regular units of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are tasked with the ‘hold‘ part of the ‘clear, hold, and build’ counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. The government is expected to re-establish local governance and basic services as the ‘build’ component of the COIN campaign. However, the ANA and ANP have proven to be very inept at ‘holding’. The ATA will possibly provide the ‘hold’ capability that the ANA and ANP have thus far been unable to consistently provide.

Indian Territorial Army as Model. Some Afghan and American officials visited India in the later part of 2017 to have a look at the Indian Territorial Army which has been deployed to areas of contention in support of India’s regular army. The hope was that the delegation’s visit would provide good ideas on how to organize the Afghan Territorial Army. [2] The Indian Territorial Army was raised in 1920 by the English and, after independence, established as part of the Indian military forces. Through the years it has had a variety of units – infantry, artillery, engineer, and more. It currently is part of the Regular Army. It’s present role is to relieve the Indian regular Army from static duties and assist in civil administration during natural calamities or emergency situations.

Recruitment. Perhaps the intent of the ATA program is to recruit individuals currently part of the Afghan Local Police found in many of the districts across Afghanistan. Other groups that may be transitioned to the ATA could be the ‘national uprising’ groups of the NDS and private militias. Eventually, it is anticipated that there will be over 20,000 in the Afghan Territorial Army.

Implementation of the Territorial Army (TA). Initially there will be two branches of the TA. The first branch will be located in southern Nangarhar province. Some news reports say that this branch will be operational by February 2018 – time will tell. The second branch will be in Khowst province and is scheduled to be operational in April 2018. [1] However, some news reports indicate that implementation of the program, in part or in full, could be delayed until after the 2018 parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-summer.

Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan

Nangarhar Province. The first force to be stood up – in Nangarhar province – will be about 1,000 men strong. Units of the ATA may be deployed to Achin and Kot districts of Nangarhar province as part of a pilot program. The successful establishment and implementation of the ATA in southern Nangarhar province would assist in the degradation of the Islamic State Khorsan Province (ISKP) as well as the Taliban in that region.

Resistance to the ATA. Many critics in the international community, including the United Nations, are opposed to the plan for another militia-type organization within the Afghan security structure. Human rights organizations and some European nations are very critical of militia organizations – pointing out that Afghanistan’s history of internal conflict and human rights abuses stem from the existence of informal armed groups controlled by regional strongmen, local factions, and various tribes. A common critique is that there is a lack of effective oversight, training, and accountability. In addition, there are many instances when militias recruited from one community used their increased power and prestige to settle old scores – adjusting the balance of power between tribes and sub-tribes. Some militias have also wielded influence on elections, benefited from patronage networks, and got involved in the drug trade. [3]

Comparison to ALP. Critics say that previous attempts to establish local security forces have not been successful and point to alleged human rights abuses of the Afghan Local Police as an example. The Afghan National Police are responsible for the supervision of the ALP at the district and provincial level and the ALP program comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. However, in many instances ALP units have fallen under the control of local strongmen. In addition, many district chiefs of police (DCoPs) fail to provide the support to the ALP that is needed to ensure it is an effective local security force. Currently (Dec 2017) the ALP has a personnel strength of 29,000.

But Different than the ALP. The comparison of the proposed ATA to the ALP is a valid one to make; but there are a few differences. The Afghan National Army is a much more competent and less corrupt organization than the Afghan National Police. The same can be said for the Ministry of Defense (MoD) when compared to the Ministry of Interior (MoI). In addition, the Afghan National Army – for the most part – appears to stay above the fray of local politics. Thus the ATA could be less likely to align itself with criminal gangs and regional strongman; a criticism of the ALP under the control of the Afghan National Police.

Need for the ATA? The idea of a local defense force for Afghanistan is not new. Neither is it an entirely bad idea. U.S. forces have attempted many times to establish local defense forces in the past – these include the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP), Local Defense Initiative (LDI), Community Defense Initiative (CDI), Interim Security Critical Infrastructure (ISCI), Critical Infrastructure Protection Program (CIP) and Community Based Security Solutions (CBSS). The most successful program to date, although it has many detractors, has been the Afghan Local Police – which was rolled out as part of the U.S. special operations forces’s Village Stability Operations (VSO) program.

NDS and PUP.  In addition to the programs described above the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) has run several of its own local defense programs – one of the latest being the People’s Uprising Program (PUP) set up in 2015. One such unit was established in Kot district, Nangarhar province to help combat the ISKP. Other districts also received assistance from the NDS for the formation of local militias.

Low Cost Approach. The use of defense forces recruited from local areas could be an economical method of defending communities and districts from the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The costs associated with pay, equipment, logistics, supply, support, and infrastructure would be a fraction of the cost for regular Afghan National Army units. The members of the ATA would probably (for the most part) live in their own homes and would be required to take part in security operations on a limited basis.

Other Advantages. Local militias based in home communities are more attuned to the presence of insurgents, their supporters, and sympathizers than national level intelligence or military organizations. In addition, local security forces are more likely to want to defend their home communities; as opposed to, for example, a Tajik or Harzara soldier stationed in Helmand province. Local defense forces know the local geography, political environment, and language (Pashtu versus Dari).

Reigning In Local Militias. One possible positive outcome of the ATA could be the imposing of greater Afghan government control of pro-government militia forces. Integrating these militia groups into the ATA could possibly reduce corruption, human rights abuses, and provide greater control on their activities. Other groups not integrated into the ATA but that continue to exist in the local area could have their nefarious activities held in check by the ATA.

Food Fight. Naturally, whenever resources and money go into a new project or organization in Afghanistan there are those looking for a piece of the pie. It is Afghanistan after all; one of the most corrupt nations in the world. One strongman trying to gain control of the Afghan Territorial Army is Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces – and currently the Minister for Border and Tribal Affairs. Sherzai would like to see the new force created within his ministry. [4]

Funding. It is unlikely that the European community will participate in the funding of the force. The money will likely come from the United States funneled through the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A). The funding mechanism has yet to be identified – at least publicly.

Training. Also not readily known is how the Ministry of Defense intends to recruit, vet, and train this force. In addition, not much is known about how U.S. or NATO forces will be involved in the establishment and training of the Afghan Territorial Army. United States special operations forces were extremely instrumental in the establishment, training, and supervision of the Afghan Local Police in it’s early years. Where U.S. SOF were directly involved the ALP were extremely effective. Where U.S. SOF was not involved in the ALP – as in the case of ‘unilateral ALP’; then these units tended to pose problems. [5]

Possible Outcome? The success of the Afghan Territorial Army will depend on many factors. Funding, recruitment, vetting, training, supervision, and accountability are all considerations that must be planned for and implemented.


[1] See page 119 of Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, October 30, 2017.

[3] See “U.S. Plan for New Afghan Force Revives Fears of Militia Abuses”The New York Times, September 15, 2017.

[3] HRW, Afghanistan: Proposed Militia a Threat to Civilians, Human Rights Watch, September 15, 2017.

[4] “UN concerned by controversial US plan to revive Afghan militias”The Guardian, November 19, 2017.

[5] During the time that U.S. SOF was actively engaged in standing up the ALP the tashkil that allocated ALP units (positions) to Afghan districts had to be approved by the Ministry of Interior. Naturally politics were paramount and senior officials, based on their ethnic background, tended to want to approve tashkils for their favored districts. There were many instances where the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) found out about ALP units that had been established by the MoI without the assistance, support, training, and vetting of a U.S. SOF team. These ALP units were referred to as ‘unilateral ALP’.


Clark, Kate, More Militias? Part 1: Deja vu double plus with the proposed ‘Afghan Territorial Army’, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), September 21, 2017.

Clark, Kate and Borhan Osman, More Militias? Part 2: The proposed Afghan Territorial Army in the fight against ISKP, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), September 23, 2017.

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