Afghan Local Police listen to a speech during a ceremony presenting new uniforms at Gizab village of Uruzgan province south west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 24, 2011. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Obama seemed to agree on the future role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a division has emerged over one of the American military’s most prized defense programs.

Top Afghan officials said Obama’s pledge last week to remove U.S. troops from Afghan villages should apply to Special Operations forces charged with training the Afghan Local Police. But U.S. officials said they assumed that the policy would apply only to traditional military operations and would include an exemption for the police trainers, whose mission they see as critical to security throughout Afghanistan.

The dispute underscored just how difficult negotiations over a long-term security partnership could be during the next year. The disagreement, like others before it, centers on the fundamental question of what will keep Afghans safe: U.S. officials say the local police program thwarts insurgents, but Karzai insists that it invites attacks.

The broader Afghan interpretation of the troop withdrawal, which Afghan officials said they believed would happen within weeks, would derail much of the Special Operations forces’ mission in Afghanistan and halt the expansion of the fastest-
growing Afghan security force, one that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

About 4,500 Special Operations personnel are charged with training the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, a force of 18,500 villagers who are armed, paid and taught to defend their communities against encroaching insurgents. The force, which operates in 94 districts, was slated to expand to 26,000 members by the end of 2014, with units dedicated to securing remote locations where traditional Afghan forces are weak or nonexistent.

Although Karzai approved the creation of the local police forces, he has long expressed a general opposition to the presence of Western troops in Afghan villages, saying they are often a source of instability and tension and could be easily replaced with an all-Afghan force.

“Our position is that such trainings should not take place in the Afghan villages,” Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said in an interview Monday. “The presence of foreign troops puts the lives of villagers in danger by attracting [insurgent] attacks. If Afghan forces are unable at this stage to take control of villages, how will they do so after international troops leave?”

A prized U.S. program

Ending the village-level training would mean the termination of one of the U.S. military’s most valued missions in Afghanistan. Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Congress last year that the ALP is “an important mechanism for holding the ground in Afghanistan.”

Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, said the training is “important to ensure that the ALP continue to grow in capability and effectiveness, and that the overall security situation across Afghanistan continues to improve.”

U.S. officials said they are pushing for an interpretation of the Obama-Karzai pledge that would allow for the ALP training program to continue.

“We envision that small numbers of coalition soldiers will continue to provide hands-on training to ALP forces at the village level,” Collins said.

Both sides seemed open Monday to negotiating an understanding about the program, though it was unclear whether or how quickly that would happen. Despite apparently steadfast Afghan opposition to the program, Karzai’s message was contradicted by his ambassador to the United States, Eklil Hakimi, who said Special Operations personnel could remain in villages as long as they played a supporting role.

“Afghans will be in the lead,” Hakimi told reporters in Washington.

“These are details which we will work out in the coming days with our Afghan friends and allies,” a senior U.S. official said. “The ALP plays a vital role in protecting the villages of Afghanistan, and its role will be worked out in the near future.”

Karzai has made clear that he would link his demand for a withdrawal of Western forces from Afghan villages to any discussions about the larger issue of a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan — and to his government’s willingness to grant American troops diplomatic immunity beyond 2014.

 “We understand that the issue of immunity is of very specific importance for the United States, as was for us the issue of sovereignty and detentions and the continued presence of international forces in Afghan villages,” Karzai said at a news conference with Obama at the White House last week.

At the event, Karzai mentioned the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghan villages three times. After returning to Afghanistan, he told Kabul-based reporters, “When foreigners leave, Afghanistan will never become unsafe; it will become safer.”

Frustration over local police

Karzai initially opposed the formation of the local police program, fearing that it would give rise to lawless militias. He came to accept the force, largely at the urging of U.S. military commanders, but remained skeptical of the ALP’s recruits and their ability to protect Afghan civilians.

Some Afghan officials said Karzai’s current objection to village-­level trainers is based largely on his perception of the ALP, a force with which he has grown increasingly frustrated. In recent months, Karzai has met with a number of civilians who accused the local police of rape, murder and theft in their villages, Faizi said.

“People from every corner of Afghanistan have complained to him about the ALP’s abuse of power,” Faizi said. “Looking at the number of complaints . . . it’s definitely the viewpoint at the palace that the ALP is not a long-term solution.”

Many Western human rights organizations share that assessment.

“The creation of the ALP is a high-risk strategy to achieve short-term goals in which local groups are again being armed without adequate oversight or accountability,” a 2011 Human Rights Watch report said.

Since the program began in 2010, there have been at least three instances of ALP recruits turning their guns on their U.S. counterparts.

But American officials stand by the program, calling it a sustainable solution to one of Afghanistan’s most complicated problems: securing far-flung villages where the Taliban has traditionally found haven. Rather than protecting the population, U.S. officials said of the program, American troops were teaching the population to protect itself.