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KABUL (Reuters) - Armed groups supported by NATO and the Afghan government are terrorising and robbing the people they are supposed to protect, behaviour that is building support for insurgents, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a report on Monday.
Murder, torture, illegal taxes, theft and the gang rape of a teenage boy are among the abuses by government-backed militias, and the NATO-funded Afghan local police, documented in the 102-page report, "Just Don't Call It a Militia."
The groups were formed in response to Afghanistan's downward security spiral, aiming to capitalise on a basic instinct to protect local communities -- much like Iraq's Awakening Council that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war.
But a lack of training, vetting, oversight and accountability means armed groups are adding another worry to the lives of ordinary Afghans already struggling with a war that this year has claimed a record number of civilian lives.
"Kabul and Washington need to make a clean break from supporting abusive and destabilising militias to have any hope of a viable, long-term security strategy," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"Poor governance, corruption, human rights abuses, and impunity for government-affiliated forces all are drivers of the insurgency."
Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had reactivated militia networks dating back to Afghanistan's bloody civil war, the report said, providing money and weapons that have been used with impunity.
Northern Kunduz province has seen a particularly rapid spread, and Human Rights Watch cites the case of four men killed by a militia in the course of a family dispute in 2009. No one involved had been arrested, because the commander had close ties to police and a local strongman, the report said.
Also problematic are the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a flagship project of General David Petraeus, who stepped down as commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan earlier this year.
He described them as one of the most critical planks of a stepped-up push for Afghan security, supplementing the national army and police in areas where they have little presence.
There are plans to recruit up to 30,000, using a small salary to formalise local protection networks, though only around 7,000 were in place by August.
In some areas this had worked, with locals citing improvements in security, the report said. But in others criminals and insurgents were joining the ALP, getting access to funds and guns.
Among the abuse cases documented in the report was the gang-rape of a 13-year-old boy in northeastern Baghlan province by four ALP members, who abducted him in the street and took him to the home of a sub commander. No one has been arrested.
In another incident, the ALP were accused of beating teenage boys and hammering nails into the feet of one.
And in southern Uruzgan province, elders who refused to provide men for an ALP unit were detained, and there have been reports of forcible collection of informal taxes.
A spokesman of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force defended the ALP as a critical element in improving governance and security at the local level.
"Where relevant, we will endeavour to improve this programme and work diligently to correct those observations noted in the Human Rights Watch Report," Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings said.
ISAF would work with the Afghan authorities to investigate allegations of mistreatment and abuse of citizens. Some parts of the report were "dated or incorrect," he said.
Human Rights Watch said that previous attempts to use local defence forces as a shortcut to stability had also been discredited after they spread fear and anger.
They cited the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP), created in 2006. With minimal training or vetting it was highly corrupt, the report said, while the Afghan Public Protection Force (AP3) in Wardak province became involved in intimidation.
"While there is a need for more security at the village level, the Afghan and U.S. governments should be very careful not to repeat the mistakes of militias past," Adams said.
"If quick corrections are not made, the ALP could end up being just another militia that causes more problems than it cures."
NATO remained committed to helping build institutions that were accountable, another spokesman said.
"ISAF welcomes fair criticism and advice and will continue to support the build-up of Afghan institutions, with a view of full accountability and openness," General Carsten Jacobson told a news conference in the Afghan capital.
Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani