U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban

In a controversial experiment, the U.S. military has begun to organize and train village-level security teams to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

ARGHANDAB DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN -- Taliban fighters used to swagger with impunity through this farming village, threatening to assassinate government collaborators. They seeded the main thoroughfare, a dirt road with moonlike craters, with land mines. They paid local men to attack U.S. and Afghan troops.

Then, beginning in late February, a small detachment of U.S. Special Forces soldiers organized nearly two dozen villagers into an armed Afghan-style neighborhood watch group.

These days, the bazaar is thriving. The schoolhouse has reopened. People in the area have become confident enough to report Taliban activity to the village defense force and the police. As a consequence, insurgent attacks have nearly ceased and U.S. soldiers have not hit a single roadside bomb in the area in two months, according to the detachment.

"Everyone feels safer now," said Nasarullah, one of two gray-bearded tribal elders in charge of the village force. "Nobody worries about getting killed anymore."

The rapid and profound changes have generated excitement among top U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, fueling hope that such groups could reverse insurgent gains by providing the population a degree of protection that the police, the Afghan army and even international military forces have been unable to deliver.

But plans to expand the program have been stymied by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who fears the teams could turn into offensive militias, the kind that wreaked havoc on the country in the 1990s and prompted the rise of the Taliban. "This is playing with fire," an Afghan government official said. "These groups may bring us security today, but what happens tomorrow?"

Citing Karzai's objections, Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has blocked the release of money needed to broaden the initiative. He also has instructed State Department personnel in the country not to assist the effort until the Afghan government endorses it.

In addition to sharing Karzai's concerns about what would happen to the local defense forces once U.S. oversight ends, Eikenberry and other embassy officials worry that the program would weaken the central government in the eyes of the public and compete with efforts to build up the nation's army and police.

"At the end of the day, how sustainable would a program like this be?" said a State Department official based in Kabul, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal disputes. "It runs counter to the goal of giving the state a monopoly of force."

The military's interest in local-defense initiatives is driven in large part by President Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing combat forces, which has increased pressure on commanders to demonstrate clear progress in their counterinsurgency mission this year.

Some military officials have expressed frustration that U.S. diplomats in Kabul have not done more to lobby Karzai and other Afghan officials to change their minds. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who had been supportive of the initiative earlier in the year, told participants at a U.S.-Afghan planning session this month that he no longer sanctions it, a reversal that military officials attribute to pressure from Karzai. Atmar instead wants the United States to expand a different local-defense program, which is under the control of his ministry and has been implemented in one province in the east, but U.S. commanders think it will not be as effective as the approach undertaken in Afghanistan.

Instead of waiting for Karzai's approval, the Special Forces command has moved forward with pilot projects here and in nine other villages, hoping to show that the forces being created are not militias. The command allowed a Washington Post reporter to visit four of the sites this month.

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