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U.S. ambassador puts brakes on plan to utilize Afghan militias against Taliban

By Greg Jaffe and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; A08

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and senior Afghan officials have resisted moving forward with a bold and potentially risky initiative to support local militias in Afghanistan that are willing to defend their villages against insurgents, according to U.S. officials.

Their concerns have slowed the implementation of a key effort to provide security in places where there are relatively few NATO forces or Afghan police and Army units. U.S. military officials had wanted to get the initiative -- developed under the leadership of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan -- off to a quick start this year.

The plan was to take advantage of the emergence of informal village security forces that were taking up arms against outside insurgents. The hope was that the new program could yield thousands of new security forces relatively fast, bridging the gap until more army and police forces could be trained. But before the initiative can be implemented on a broader scale, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry must approve the release of more money for it.

Eikenberry's unease about the program as it was structured by the military also reflects a broader difference of opinion at the highest levels of the U.S. military and diplomatic headquarters in Kabul about new approaches to combating the Taliban insurgency. While military commanders are eager to experiment with decentralized grass-roots initiatives that work around the ponderous Afghan bureaucracy in Kabul, civilian officials think it is more important to wait until they have the central government's support, something they regard as essential to sustaining the programs.

U.S. Embassy and Afghan officials are working to modify the program, called Local Defense Initiatives, to ensure that the Afghan government plays a more central role in how it is run. "We are committed to doing this right, and that means taking the time for the Afghan government and people to decide on whether and how to move ahead," said Philip Kosnett, the U.S. Embassy's political-military counselor in Kabul.

The disagreement about how to move forward with the local security program comes at a time when McChrystal and Eikenberry, who served as the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, are under intense pressure to show fast results to take advantage of the 30,000 U.S. troops that will arrive in the country this year. By July 2011, President Obama has said, military commanders will begin sending some of those forces home.

Afghan officials and Eikenberry have also expressed concern that unless there is a detailed plan to connect these village security forces to Ministry of Interior oversight, they could fuel the rise of warlords and undermine the already fragile government in Kabul. Another worry is that the local tribal leaders could manipulate U.S. officers who do not understand politics and tribal grievances in a particular area, U.S. officials said.

"Our level of intelligence is so lacking," said an adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. "We could be supporting people whose interests are not what we think they are." Eikenberry has argued that without Afghan government support, the program could be quickly disbanded if one of the village security forces is turned by the Taliban or gets into a dispute with government security forces.

"It's a two-edged sword," Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in an interview. "One person's community defense initiative can be another person's warlord militia."

Military officials said it is important to take advantage of the colder winter months when violence drops to begin training village forces. "If you delay until March, you lose a lot," said a military official in Kabul.

The military is moving forward with the initiative on a smaller scale, using money that the embassy does not control. "No one is frustrated. We just want to get going," the official said.

The Afghan village program has drawn comparisons to the Sons of Iraq effort, in which Sunni tribal forces consisting of more than 100,000 Iraqis -- many of them former insurgents -- were paid to police their villages. That effort, which was widely viewed as essential to blunting a runaway insurgency, was started without seeking permission from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who initially voiced strong objections to the program. Although some members of the Sons of Iraq have been absorbed into the army and police forces, Sunni leaders have accused Maliki of reneging on commitments made by U.S. commanders when the program was started and trying to dismantle the program.

The Afghan village security initiative differs significantly from the Sons of Iraq effort, which involved U.S. military personnel training, arming and paying Sunni tribesmen to defend their communities against al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

In Afghanistan, the military does not intend to arm or pay members of the local security groups. Afghanistan, military officials note, is already awash in weapons. Compensation will be in the form of money for development projects in areas where the groups operate. Although Afghanistan's interior minister has expressed a desire to pay recruits, the United States plans to channel development projects to villages that sign up for the security effort. Village militias will also receive radios to call for assistance from nearby U.S. or Afghan forces and receive training from Special Forces troops.

Military officials also said that to prevent warlordism, the groups will be under the authority of a local shura -- a council of tribal elders -- not a single tribal chief. U.S. military officials, meanwhile, have said that they are committed to a bottom-up approach to security and economic development, which recognizes that many Afghans consider the corrupt central government part of the problem and a threat to local tribal power structures.

"The community level will be decisive -- and that support is entirely up for grabs," Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, an adviser to McChrystal, wrote in the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Keith B. Richburg in Kabul contributed to this report.

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