U.S. initiative to arm Afghan villagers carries some risks

By Joshua Partlow
Monday, February 7, 2011

SHAHBUDDIN, AFGHANISTAN - Operating from a small U.S. Special Forces base on a snow-speckled field here is a newly minted U.S. ally who represents either a brighter future or everything that is wrong with Afghanistan's troubled past.

The former Afghan insurgent is despised by the head of the provincial council, who calls him "a thief, a kidnapper and out of control." He is disparaged by police, who view him as a dangerous fighter and dissolute hash smoker.

But to the U.S. military, Noor ul Haq's past means less than his willingness to fight the Taliban. In these dangerous villages of northern Afghanistan's Baghlan province, Haq has been installed as a leader of the nascent Afghan Local Police, where he oversees dozens of ragtag gunmen backed by U.S. military muscle.

This U.S. experiment gives villagers AK-47s and a three-week training course and encourages them to protect their neighborhoods from the Taliban. The experiment, being replicated around the country, is the latest and most ambitious U.S. effort to build grass-roots opposition to the insurgency in rural areas where U.S. troops and Afghan security forces are spread thin.

Winning President Hamid Karzai's backing for the program was an early success for Gen. David H. Petraeus, who overcame Afghan suspicions that it would add new militias to a stew already brimming with warlords. The local police forces now include nearly 3,000 Afghans in least 14 sites across the country, but U.S. military officials expect them eventually to grow tenfold in size. U.S. commanders hope to establish as many as 50 to 70 sites before the fighting season resumes in the spring.

To partner with the local police, a U.S. army battalion from the 1st Infantry Division is arriving in Afghanistan in an unusual arrangement in which conventional troops will work under the command of U.S. Special Forces, who have been in charge so far. The elite Special Forces have training to instruct indigenous troops, but the Army battalion's greater numbers mean the program can spread to more areas.

In some parts of the country, particularly Uruzgan province, senior U.S. military officials said the village guards have performed well and repelled several Taliban attacks.

But some U.S. officials remain skeptical that the gunmen can be controlled or that they will be embraced by a wary Afghan government, which is nominally in charge of them. What is happening in Baghlan province points to some of the risks involved.

Noor ul Haq and his 70 fighters, from a force that is expected to ultimately triple in size, have been accused of robbing and beating villagers, breaking into homes at night and carrying out revenge arrests and even killings. While only recently approved to officially join the local police, they have worked with U.S. troops for months.

"In Baghlan, all the developments have been bad," said a U.S. official in Kabul familiar with the program. "They're supposed to be neighborhood watch with AK-47s. But these guys are setting up checkpoints, they're doing classic militiaman shakedown things."

By empowering Haq and his allies, the U.S. Special Forces have essentially chosen sides in a complex web of long-standing feuds and rivalries. These Pashtuns have enemies in their villages and the government, particularly among other ethnic groups, and their growing power risks provoking as much hostility as it alleviates.

"The people here have two options: One is to leave the area, the other is to fight," said Noor Alam, the head of the Khala Zaiee council, one of seven neighboring village councils that submitted a letter to the Baghlan governor this month calling for Haq's removal. "Just because they fought the Taliban, they should not be able to do whatever they want."

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