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U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; A01

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.

"There are signs of real promise," said Brig. Gen. Austin S. Miller, the top special operations commander in Afghanistan.

A senior U.S. military official said Karzai has provided a tacit blessing for a small number of experiments so long as the forces that are created are connected in some way to the Afghan government. The official said the Special Forces aim to build those links.

In Washington, a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy said the experiments have prompted interest -- and cautious support -- in the White House. "These sorts of bottom-up solutions need to be part of the equation," the official said.

Seeking support

When a detachment from the 1st Special Forces Group arrived here in mid-January, it seemed like a good place to experiment with the Local Defense Initiative. This part of the fertile Arghandab River valley is a key route for insurgents seeking to infiltrate the city of Kandahar, located less than 20 miles away. The population here is made up largely of ethnic Pashtuns who belong to the Alokozai tribe. Their leadership has been generally supportive of the Afghan government.

But when the soldiers asked the principal tribal leaders in the area to gather to discuss security matters, they were rebuffed.

"The only thing they could agree on was saying to us, 'We don't need your help,' " the detachment commander said. U.S. military officials requested that members of the unit, as well as the name of the village, not be identified because of operational security concerns.

The soldiers responded by setting out to drink endless cups of tea with the elders. Instead of driving around in large land-mine-resistant vehicles as conventional U.S. Army units do, the soldiers jumped on camouflage-painted dirt bikes and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles equipped with a front mount for an M240 machine gun and a rear rack upon which a few AT-4 small rockets can be lashed. Their mode of transportation mirrored that of their Special Forces brethren riding horseback with troops of the Northern Alliance in 2001.

The goal was to win support for a program that was hatched at a Pentagon City sports bar last year by Special Forces Lt. Col. David S. Mann and Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political scientist who focuses on Afghanistan. They questioned whether the United States and NATO were missing an opportunity by concentrating so many resources on building up the national police, the army and other formal institutions, arguing that the Afghans should try to re-create the informal village-level defense forces that existed in parts of the country when it was a monarchy.

Mann and Jones's plan, which senior U.S. commanders endorsed, seeks to allay fears that the effort will breed militias: The forces are not paid or given weapons, and to minimize the risk of warlordism, they are supposed to be under the authority of a group of tribal elders -- not just one person.

Within a month, the promise of modest reconstruction projects paid for with the military's discretionary money managed to sway the locals. Nasarullah, who is the Alokozai leader in the village, agreed to sit down with Mohammed Aman, the leader of the minority Kakar tribesmen in the area. A few weeks later, the 22-member force was formed, drawn principally from the Alokozai but with the support of the Kakar.

The detachment has trained the members in rifle marksmanship, basic first aid and how to conduct a patrol. They also have received lessons on setting up traffic checkpoints and searching vehicles.

Those selected were eager to participate, but they initially insisted on being paid for their work -- a line the Special Forces did not want to cross. After extensive negotiations, they compromised: Members of the defense force would receive $10 a day, but they would have to spend part of their time working on reconstruction projects.

"They're pulling security and laying bricks," the commander said.

Perceptions of security

The defense force appears more ragtag than fearsome militia. Although the members wear matching army-green salwar-kameez and camouflage vests, they have all manner of footwear and headdress. Their AK-47s are battered, and they show more interest in lolling about their compound than imposing authority on the village.

But that does not seem to trouble the soldiers here. The measure of the force's effectiveness, say members of the detachment, has more to do with perceptions of security among the villagers than the amount of time its members strut around.

"They're a tripwire," Mann said. "The fact that they're guaranteeing safety is the essence of the program."

To the soldiers here, the clearest measure of the change that has occurred may not be in statistics or comments from residents, but in a one-page handwritten letter, placed in an air-mail envelope and dropped under the gate of the local defense force compound last week.

It was addressed to Toorjan, the commander of one of the two police checkpoints on the main dirt road -- the only Afghan government presence in the area. In January, he hit a roadside bomb while driving through the bazaar. He was not seriously injured, but his truck was destroyed.

The letter, from a person who said he was a local supporter of the Taliban, was an olive branch of sorts. The writer blamed the bombing, which he said he witnessed, on fighters from Pakistan, and he suggested he was open to switching sides.

"The local Taliban are our neighbors," Toorjan said. "Now that the security is better, they have no other choice but to support us."

Slow progress

Even if the Special Forces get the authority and funding to expand the initiative, replicating what has unfolded here will not be easy.

It has taken three months of intense effort by one detachment to turn around -- for the moment -- just one village. Although there are several dozen detachments in Afghanistan, not all of them could be reassigned to this task. And even if a few dozen villages were flipped, it might not have the hoped-for strategic impact.

Among members of the village defense force here, however, questions of growth are less important than what happens once the flow of U.S. cash ends. Will the group demobilize? Or will it, like so many other armed outfits in Afghanistan's history, morph into something larger and more troublesome?

Nasarullah, the local elder, insists that he does not have the money, or the desire, to sustain the effort himself. Even the members do not regard their current roles as a permanent occupation. Some said they would like to join the police. Others said they will go back to their farms.

"I am only doing this for my village," said Zahir Jan, who owns a small shop in Kandahar that he has entrusted to his brother while he serves in the defense force. "I am looking forward to the day I can put my gun down. But that day has not arrived."

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