New Joint Effort Aims to Empower Afghan Tribes to Guard Themselves

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

Afghan, British and U.S. officials have launched a new security initiative to empower tribes and other residents -- including former Taliban -- to guard their communities in southern Afghanistan against insurgents and criminals.

The controversial multimillion-dollar program, approved last month by President Hamid Karzai and a group of senior Afghan and foreign officials, will provide radios, phones and cash to village and tribal elders, who in turn agree to work with government forces and deny haven to insurgents. The program would also promote reconciliation by vetting and integrating former Taliban.

"You can call them night watchmen or home guards. They are not a formed militia, and there is no net increase in weapons. . . . It is simply creating an antibody to the Taliban in these communities," a senior Western official said. "Taliban commanders and their fighters have come over to us and say they want to work with the government . . . so this is already happening."

The initiative, called the Afghan Social Outreach Program, is partly a response to the troubled Afghan police force, which is widely viewed as predatory, officials said. It is part of a broader governance effort lead by Jelani Popal, head of the six-month-old Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which reports to Karzai. "There is a problem of corruption . . . warlordism and the drug mafia," Popal said.

Popal has been assessing governors and district leaders, and, with Karzai's authority, removing ineffective or criminal ones. He is also helping districts and provinces create their own development plans.

"The most important change in Afghanistan on the civilian side in 2007 was the removal of responsibility for local government from the flawed Ministry of Interior," said U.S. Ambassador William Wood.

British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles said, "We've got to do it the Afghan way . . . by empowering communities."

Others warn the initiative could backfire. "If you begin to lean solely to local security solutions, you may inadvertently re-empower some old power brokers," said Gen. Dan K. McNeill, head of the International Security Assistance Force.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company