Getting desperate; Afghanistan mulls forming militias

By Simon Cameron-Moore
Reuters
Sunday, June 11, 2006; 4:23 AM

KABUL (Reuters) - Unable to offer protection to vulnerable villagers against intimidation by Taliban fighters, the Afghan government says it is considering forming tribal militias to guard the places security forces can't reach.

"The government is not arming these people. They have had arms for generations, and the government is going to register their guns and provide them some earnings in this regard," Abdul Manan Farahi, the Interior Ministry's counter-terrorism chief, told Reuters.

The insurgency is in its bloodiest phase since the overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001, and with thousands more NATO peacekeeping troops being deployed by the end of July, this summer is regarded as a critical period.

But any decision to put irregular Afghan forces into the fray would run counter to a disarmament program that is supposed to finish next year.

The proposal would be discussed with concerned parties -- for and against -- in coming days, Farahi said.

In the eastern province of Kunar, where U.S.-led coalition forces launched Operation Mountain Lion earlier this year to clear out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, it has already happened.

"A tribal militia force was formed more than 10 months ago here," Zahidullah Zahid, a spokesman for Kunar's governor, told Reuters. "These tribal people know the territory far better than the police and army who are sent from elsewhere."

They own their own guns, mostly AK47s, most don't wear uniforms, and they're paid around 4,000 afghanis ($80) a month by the Interior Ministry.

In southern Helmand province, where British troops are stationed, former governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzada says he has enlisted several hundred tribesmen.

"I have raised 500 people and am working on their registration. The Finance Ministry pays them $200 a month," Akhundzada told Reuters.

Some members of the international community and factional commanders who have already handed over weapons are angered by long-term dangers.

"This shows double standards," said Mohammad Faqir, who had

300 men under his command in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif until they were disarmed last year. "It is collecting arms from the north, but giving arms to others in the south."

DESPERATE TIMES, DESPERATE MEASURES

NATO's spokesman in Kabul, Mark Laity, said he was unaware of plans to use Afghan irregular forces in areas where international forces could not provide protection.

But he added the disarmament of illegal armed groups, known as the DIAG process, was subject to local conditions.

"We can't have irregular armed forces, but this is very much a phased process," Laity said. "We are still committed to ensuring the DIAG policy is complete by the end of 2007.

"Implementation of that is obviously conditional on local situations to make it effective."

The local situation in the south and east, according to the people who live there, is bad.

Insurgents have infiltrated large tracts of the rural south, although hundreds of Taliban have been killed in the last few weeks, mainly due to air strikes by U.S.-led coalition forces or encounters with large groups of fighters.

Going just a few kilometers (miles) outside Kandahar, the main city in the region, is regarded as risky, even on the main highway leading northeast to Kabul, or west to Herat.

That the coalition only has 3,000 troops in the south is part of the problem. The limitations of the Afghan National Army and the police are other factors.

By the end of July, NATO will have stationed 6,000 troops in the four provinces of the south -- Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul -- and the coalition force will pull out.

The Afghan army and police will also be sizably reinforced.

For all the reinforcements, the government clearly feels it risks losing ground unless it helps villagers defend themselves.

Western officials may not agree with the method, and they are worried about the possible re-emergence of commanders they have sought to sideline, but they understand the compulsions.

Moreover, the officials believe there's little point in opposing something they have little say in, especially if it does result in better security at the village level.

"I think what's important to focus on is whether irregular forces are used in a way where they are clearly under government control and can be dismissed when not needed," U.S. ambassador Ronald E. Neumann told journalists in Kabul last week.

"Or, whether you are building up, or rebuilding commanders and separate sources of control.

"We put probably a million weapons out in Vietnam to the rural and popular forces, and very few, if any, of those were turned against the government," Neumann added.

But that was Vietnam.

Afghanistan's communist government recruited militias to fight mujahideen forces in late 1980s, but several commanders turned against the government and helped pave the way for its collapse. Afghans have bitter memories of what happened after that, as civil war and virtual anarchy let in the Taliban.

(With additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin)

© 2006 Reuters