By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A01
KABUL -- As he takes charge of the war effort in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus has met sharp resistance from President Hamid Karzai to an American plan to assist Afghan villagers in fighting the Taliban on their own.
A first meeting last week between the new commander and the Afghan president turned tense after Karzai renewed his objections to the plan, according to U.S. officials. The idea of recruiting villagers into local defense programs is a key part of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, and Karzai's stance poses an early challenge to Petraeus as he tries to fashion a collaborative relationship with the Afghan leader.
Senior U.S. officials say that the United States would like to expand the program to about two dozen sites across Afghanistan, double the current number, and are hoping to overcome Karzai's concerns. But the issue is delicate to many who fear that such experiments could lead Afghanistan further into warlordism and out-of-control militias.
The U.S. initiative was developed under Petraeus's predecessor, ousted Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, although Petraeus has been a strong supporter of such programs. When Petraeus commanded the Iraq war, U.S. forces partnered with tens of thousands of civilian guards, including former insurgents, who fought against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Despite his tensions with other U.S. officials, McChrystal formed a close working relationship with Karzai. The question of whether Petraeus can replicate that bond remains a significant uncertainty hanging over the war effort.
"We always have long meetings and many arguments," said a senior Afghan official who was present at Karzai's meeting with Petraeus. "We always try to teach our foreign partners how to deal with a situation like this. We Afghans know better than you."
In his first week on the job, Petraeus has met with Karzai three times and discussed many topics. But on at least one issue, the village defense forces, the general has run into resistance from Karzai. The policy would give the United States and the Interior Ministry authority to pursue a variety of programs, including expanding the pilot projects that give uniforms and salaries to villagers trained by U.S. Special Operations forces.
The Afghan official said Karzai is wary of creating "a force that will be viewed as a private militia."
"We should be empowering the community in a way that doesn't risk future stability," the official said. "We are not looking for a solution only for our sake. We try to find solutions for the sake of the U.S. and Afghanistan."
A senior U.S. military official described the initial Petraeus-Karzai meeting on July 3 as a "forthright" discussion of "concerns and needs" on both sides and said Petraeus and his staff came out of it feeling that it was valuable for getting a clear firsthand sense of Karzai's views.
At a subsequent dinner in Kabul attended by Petraeus, Karzai, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and others, the issue of village defense was raised, and Karzai invited Petreaus to address the Afghan leader's concerns. The two met one-on-one Wednesday and plan to discuss the issue again next week. Petraeus is attempting to quickly respond to Karzai's problems with the program, U.S. military officials said.
Some of Karzai's concerns are "understandable," a senior military official said. "There are potential downsides with these, and safeguards are needed," the official said. "That's what we're working with our Afghan partners to ensure."
When Karzai initially objected to the initiative, his skepticism was shared by his then-interior minister, Hanif Atmar, and by U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. But Atmar has since been fired, and U.S. officials said that Petraeus's arrival has changed the dynamic between the civilian and military sides of the U.S. effort. While it was not made explicit in President Obama's offer or Petraeus's acceptance of the command, officials said that the general's stature, and the perilous state of the war, have clearly positioned him as the senior member of the U.S. team.
Attempts to recruit villagers to fight the Taliban have emerged in many forms in Afghanistan. One effort called the Village Stability Program (formerly Local Defense Initiatives), run by U.S. Special Operations forces, has been tested in places such as the volatile Argandab Valley of Kandahar. But without Karzai's approval of the policy, the spread of the program would be limited.
Another iteration, the Afghan Public Protection Police, is intended to provide an Afghan government structure over the armed villagers and salaries paid by the Interior Ministry. This program is intended to eventually envelop programs run by the U.S. Special Forces, as Afghans take more control of security in the country.
A plan for local defense forces was expected to be endorsed Thursday at a large coordinating meeting in Kabul of Afghan officials and military and civilian representatives from donor countries, to pave the way for formal introduction at an international conference in Kabul in 10 days. But while the concept was supported, it was not officially endorsed as some at the meeting wanted clarification on how it would work, according to three participants.
"It's a very well-thought-out concept, which is aimed at protecting civilians and enabling and empowering the local people to gather behind the law," said Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union special representative in Afghanistan. "The concern which we had as the European Union is to see a clear chain of command [within the Interior Ministry] so it doesn't become a separate militia."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran, also in Washington, contributed to this report.