U.S. initiative to arm Afghan villagers carries some risks

February 6, 2011

SHAHBUDDIN, AFGHANISTAN - Operating from a small U.S. Special Forces base on a snow-speckled field here is a newly-minted U.S. ally who either represents a brighter future or everything that is wrong with Afghanistan's troubled past.

The former Afghan insurgent is despised by the head of the provincial council, who calls him "a thief, a kidnapper and out of control." He is disparaged by police, who view him as a dangerous fighter and dissolute hash smoker.

But to the U.S. military, Noor ul Haq's past means less than his willingness to fight the Taliban. In these dangerous villages of northern Afghanistan's Baghlan province, Haq has been installed as a leader of the nascent Afghan Local Police, where he oversees dozens of ragtag gunmen backed by U.S. military muscle.

This U.S. experiment gives villagers AK-47s and a three-week training course and encourages them to protect their neighborhoods from the Taliban. The experiment, being replicated around the country, is the latest and most ambitious U.S. effort to build grass-roots opposition to the insurgency in rural areas where U.S. troops and Afghan security forces are spread thin.

Winning President Hamid Karzai's backing for the program was an early success for Gen. David H. Petraeus, who overcame Afghan suspicions that it would add new militias to a stew already brimming with warlords. The local police forces now include nearly 3,000 Afghans in least 14 sites across the country, but U.S. military officials expect them eventually to grow tenfold in size. U.S. commanders hope to establish as many as 50 to 70 sites before the fighting season resumes in the spring.

To partner with the local police, a U.S. army battalion from the 1st Infantry Division is arriving in Afghanistan in an unusual arrangement in which conventional troops will work under the command of U.S. Special Forces, who have been in charge so far. The elite Special Forces have training to instruct indigenous troops, but the Army battalion's greater numbers mean the program can spread to more areas.

In some parts of the country, particularly Uruzgan province, senior U.S. military officials said the village guards have performed well and repelled several Taliban attacks.

But some U.S. officials remain skeptical that the gunmen can be controlled or that they will be embraced by a wary Afghan government, which is nominally in charge of them. What is happening in Baghlan province points to some of the risks involved.

Noor ul Haq and his 70 fighters, from a force that is expected to ultimately triple in size, have been accused of robbing and beating villagers, breaking into homes at night and carrying out revenge arrests and even killings. While only recently approved to officially join the local police, they have worked with U.S. troops for months.

"In Baghlan, all the developments have been bad," said a U.S. official in Kabul familiar with the program. "They're supposed to be neighborhood watch with AK-47s. But these guys are setting up checkpoints, they're doing classic militiaman shake-down things."

By empowering Haq and his allies, the U.S. Special Forces have essentially chosen sides in a complex web of long-standing feuds and rivalries. These Pashtuns have enemies in their villages and the government, particularly among other ethnic groups, and their growing power risks provoking as much hostility as it alleviates.

"The people here have two options: One is to leave the area, the other is to fight," said Noor Alam, the head of the Khala Zaiee council, one of seven neighboring village councils that submitted a letter to the Baghlan governor this month calling for Haq's removal. "Just because they fought the Taliban, they should not be able to do whatever they want."

'Empty partnership'

Swaddled against the cold in scarves and mismatched camouflaged jackets, two local police leaders sat cross-legged on the floor of a mud hut that serves as headquarters. Rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s rested against the walls.

These men, Nazar Gul and Babrak, describe themselves as enemies of the Taliban. But some of these men are also suspicious of their comrades. Nazar Gul, who hails from the Stanekzai tribe, also makes clear that he does not want Haq to be their leader, in part because Haq comes from the rival Omar Khel tribe.

"If they are going to make him our leader, then we will leave the area," Gul said. "We will never accept Noor ul Haq."

The militiamen say they they chose to fight back a year ago because the Taliban were extorting money, trying to burn down the girls' school and imposing conservative Islamic rules. Gul's brother, then the militia leader, was killed in September, and the conflict has forced hundreds of families to flee the area.

The militiamen have been frustrated with the slow pace of transition into the local police program. They said they have received only one paltry payment so far, $130 a man, and no weapons. An Afghan official in Baghlan said the six-month probationary period for the program had yet to begin, at which point they'd earn salaries equivalent to half that of a regular policeman.

"This is an empty partnership," Babrak said. "We still haven't received any support from the government or from the international forces. We are not robbers or thieves. We are a part of the government, we are local police; they should support us."

Mounting accusations

As the partnership progresses, the allegations against Haq, a former security company employee, and his men have mounted. An Afghan intelligence official said he has received dozens of complaints about Haq. Coalition officials say he has been accused of more than 100 crimes. The provincial council chief, Mohammad Rasoul Mohseni, said Haq's men have collected thousands of pounds of rice by force from area farmers, beaten residents and held people in temporary detention.

A taxi driver named Lal Jan said his 9-year-old son, Sharwal, was stabbed and fatally shot by Haq's men, after they led the Special Forces to his house one evening last year. He said Sharwal had opened the door for the men and then was hauled out by a man who held his hand over the boy's mouth. Jan said he was detained by the Americans but soon released.

"The weapons are in the hands of one party now," Mohseni said. "If the people involved in this program aren't supported by the people, I predict their future will be more dangerous than with the Taliban."

The U.S. Special Forces captain who runs the local police program in the area declined to comment and would not permit Haq to leave the base for an in-person interview. Contacted by phone, Haq denied all the allegations against him.

"Those who told all these things to you, they have spoken from the tongue of the Taliban," he said. "All these people in the government are supporting the Taliban. The head of the provincial council himself is a Talib."

Haq said the boy was killed during a shootout with Special Forces after Jan, whom he called a Taliban commander, fired at them. He said the men guarding the cellphone tower were Taliban and he disarmed them.

"If the responsibility of the local police program is not in my hands, all the old violence will come back," he said.

A spokesman for the Special Forces described the accusations against Haq as "interpersonal stuff" between Afghans that the U.S. troops are "interested in but not involved in."

partlowj@washpost.com

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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