Karzai approves village defense forces
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces across the country in an attempt to generate new grassroots opposition to the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials said Wednesday.
The plan Karzai approved calls for the creation of as many as 10,000 "community police" who would be controlled and paid by the Interior Ministry, according to a senior Afghan government official.
U.S. military officials said the community police program would be modeled upon a set of local defense units, called the Afghan Public Protection Police, created over the past year in Wardak province by U.S. Special Forces. That effort has achieved mixed results, according to several military sources, but it has been regarded as the most palatable of the various local security initiatives pushed by the U.S. military because its members wear uniforms and report to the Interior Ministry.
"It's a community watch on steroids," said a U.S. military official in Kabul. "The goal is to create an environment that will be inhospitable to lawlessness, to reduce the number of places where insurgents can operate."
The official said members will carry weapons and will be authorized to guard their communities. They will be trained by the Special Forces but they will not be instructed in offensive actions, the official said.
Although U.S. military officials have pushed to expand local security initiatives, the concept had been opposed by Karzai and some of his security ministers because of concerns that assembling armed bands of villagers could lead to militias. In the 1990s, after Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the country was wracked by fighting among rival militias.
As a consequence, the top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, sought to assuage Karzai that community police forces would have a clear connection to his government, a stipulation sought by the president and his ministers.
"We'll be following a well-known concept," said the senior Afghan government official. "This is not a militia -- no way."
The Afghan official said the new force would be different from the public-protection police experiment in Wardak -- "We agreed on the community police, not the Afghan Protection Police," he said -- but the U.S. military official said the programs are the same.
"It's essentially a name change," the U.S. official said.
Winning Karzai's approval for the local defense program had been a top initial goal for Petraeus, who took command of coalition forces this month. But an early meeting with Karzai turned tense over the issue as the president renewed his objections to the U.S. plan. Petraeus and his aides then worked quickly to address Karzai's concerns and urged him to reconsider, officials said.
The public-protection police pilot program has operated for about a year in two districts of Wardak province. Sources familiar with the program said it has helped to reduce insurgent activity in some areas but participation has split along ethnic lines. Tajiks and Hazaras have signed up but Pashtuns have been slow to join. Most insurgents are Pashtuns.
The Wardak experiment was also judged by military officials to be very labor intensive, requiring multiple Special Forces teams to train and mentor the local defense units. Some officials had questioned whether such a program could be easily and quickly replicated.
But the U.S. official who talked about the new effort on Wednesday said the expansion would be aided by additional resources from the United States, NATO and the Afghan government. "We've got a new commitment behind it."
Aside from the public-protection units in Wardak, there are more than a dozen village-level defense squads that have been formed by the Special Forces in parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The official said those squads, which do not always have a clear connection to the Kabul government, will eventually be integrated into the community police program. It was unclear whether those units would then undergo changes. U.S. military officials had wanted to significantly increase the number of villages in the program, modeled on a similar initiative with Sunnis in Iraq, but the Karzai government had opposed it.
Still, the village-level squads had been deemed by some military commanders to be more effective than those in Wardak because residents regard them as community-generated -- and are more willing to support them -- as opposed to having been created by the national government, which many Afghans view with suspicion.
The U.S. official said members of the new program will be considered for jobs in the Afghan national police and army once their services are no longer needed.
Partlow reported from Kabul.
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