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Afghan President Karzai approves plan for local defense forces

By Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 15, 2010; A01

In a welcome step forward for the Obama administration's beleaguered war strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces across the country in an attempt to build grass-roots opposition to the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials said Wednesday.

The program calls for hiring as many as 10,000 "community police" officers, who would be vetted and paid by the Afghan Interior Ministry, according to a senior Afghan government official. Karzai had objected to plans that did not place all elements of such a force under direct government control.

News of the deal came as Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's chief diplomat in charge of the war effort's civilian side, endured withering bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who said Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is ill-defined and lacks goals that most Americans can understand.

"Our progress is decidedly mixed," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told Holbrooke at a hearing to discuss the administration's programs to bolster Afghanistan's government and economy. "Many people are asking if we have the right strategy," Kerry said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the panel's top Republican, cited "significant concern" that both the civilian and military sides of the strategy are "proceeding without a clear definition of success."

Those were the milder statements. Later in the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that despite more than an hour of testimony by Holbrooke, "I have heard nothing, nothing" about how progress will be measured. "I have no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front. So far, this has been an incredible waste of time."

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) remarked, "A lot of people in this country are very confused."

Holbrooke repeatedly explained the civilian elements of the policy, including its focus on agricultural development and better Afghan governance, and the overall goal of enabling the country to fend off the Taliban and al-Qaeda on its own. The administration was looking for "measurable results," he said, and "the president is demanding that of the military and civilian teams."

Holbrooke said he planned to travel to the region again Wednesday night, after returning from his last Afghanistan trip two weeks ago.

"I cannot tell you how deeply we feel that pressure," he told Webb, who asked what was being accomplished in Afghanistan. "Particularly because, as you've said, American men and women are risking their lives, sometimes paying the ultimate price, for this policy. It has to work. We owe it to them."

Criticism mounts

Criticism of the strategy that Obama announced in December has grown rapidly in recent weeks as casualties have continued to rise and Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in U.S. history. Much of the news has been mixed at best, including an increase in reports of Afghan government corruption and slow progress in military offensives on the ground.

Public impatience and concern over the cost in lives and money have been reflected in congressional demands for results. Many Republican lawmakers have condemned the July 2011 deadline Obama set for beginning a drawdown of U.S. forces as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and some Democrats have said the troops should come home now.

Some lawmakers have asked why the massive civilian program is necessary if the goal is to destroy Pakistan-based al-Qaeda. Even those who are largely supportive of the effort, such as Kerry, have raised increasingly public concerns.

One anticipated bright spot is an international conference next week in Kabul, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and representatives of dozens of other nations will gather to hear Karzai's plans for reintegrating low-level Taliban fighters who agree to leave the fight as well as for combating government corruption and other initiatives.

Karzai and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, are expected to unveil the new community defense initiative. Winning Karzai's approval for the program was a top initial goal for Petraeus, who took command of coalition forces this month. But an early meeting between the two turned tense over the issue as Karzai renewed objections that he had expressed when the plan was first raised by Petreaus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

Karzai and some of his security ministers had voiced concerns that villagers, once armed by the government, would operate as militias. In the 1990s, after Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the country was racked by fighting among rival militias.

U.S. military officials said the program would be modeled on a set of local defense units, called the Afghan Public Protection Police, created in the past year in Wardak province by U.S. Special Forces. That effort has achieved mixed results, several military sources said, but it has been regarded as the most palatable of the various local security initiatives pushed by the U.S. military because its members wear uniforms and report to the Interior Ministry.

"It's a community watch on steroids," said a U.S. military official in Kabul. "The goal is to create an environment that will be inhospitable to lawlessness, to reduce the number of places where insurgents can operate."

'Stopgap measure'

The official said members will carry weapons and will be authorized to guard their communities. They will be trained by the Special Forces, but they will not be instructed in offensive actions, the official said.

"We'll be following a well-known concept," said the senior Afghan government official. "This is not a militia -- no way."

At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell called the plan a "stopgap measure" while the Afghan national police force is being expanded and trained. The community defense force, he said, would be a "temporary solution to a very real, near-term problem . . . because we clearly do not have enough police forces to provide security in enough of the populated areas."

Aside from the public-protection units in Wardak, there are more than a dozen village-level defense squads that have been formed by the Special Forces in parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The village-level squads had been deemed by some military commanders to be more effective than those in Wardak because residents regard them as community-generated and more worthy of support than forces created by the national government, which many Afghans view with suspicion.

A U.S. official familiar with the program said that the parameters of the new program were not finalized yet and that the military hoped they would be flexible enough to continue the defense squad initiative and proceed with plans to expand it.

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.

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