Afghans to Form Local Forces to Fight Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan — After intensive discussions with NATO military commanders, the Afghan government on Wednesday approved a program to establish local defense forces around the country, with the potential to help remote areas thwart attacks by Taliban insurgents.
The NATO-backed program, which will be supervised by the Interior Ministry, will pay salaries to the members of these new forces, an inducement that could generate widespread recruitment, although Afghan aides have said they prefer to keep the program small.
Nonetheless, the Afghan government’s agreement to establish the program represents a concession by President Hamid Karzai, who had resisted it. The program is similar in some respects to the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq — although it is not expected to include insurgents who have switched sides.
The Afghan program was the product of 12 days of meetings between President Karzai and the newly appointed NATO commander here, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Iraq veteran who helped to establish the Sunni Awakening forces and who negotiated a different approach to expanding local protection forces in Afghanistan that was acceptable to Mr. Karzai.
A main goal is to help people in areas of the country, including large swaths of the rural south and east, that are devoid of any Afghan National Police or Afghan National Army and are under pressure from Taliban insurgent forces that are seeking to expand their territory.
News of the defense-forces program came during another particularly violent spasm in the Afghanistan war, with NATO reporting the deaths of seven American troops on Tuesday and Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, as well as the death of one NATO soldier from wounds received earlier in the week in the unstable south.
Mr. Karzai had pushed back against earlier efforts to expand an iteration of the defense-forces program that was largely created by the Americans because he feared it could undercut his government’s power by fostering the creation of militias, said those close to him.
"We have tribal rivalries, and tribes may think they can benefit from this and it could strengthen rivals in a village," said Waheed Omar, the spokesman for the Afghan president in an interview earlier this week. "We don’t want a short term objective to endanger a long term objective for security," he said.
The solution was finding the right safeguards to ensure that the program remained under government control, said Mr. Omar. That included putting it under the Interior ministry, having salaries paid by the ministry and putting people in uniform.
While the scale of the proposed plan is still under discussion, some American officials said it could eventually have as many as 10,000 members enrolled. However, it is likely to start small, and Afghan officials have emphasized privately that they would like to see the numbers kept to a minimum.
There are now several different semi-official armed forces operating in the country and they would all be "gradually disbanded and reintegrated" in to a single new force named the Local Police Force, according to a statement released Wednesday evening by the Afghan National Security Council.
Although the local police will be armed, their role will be “purely defensive,” said a senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.For General Petraeus, who started his new assignment here less than two weeks ago, getting a fast agreement on this new force could give momentum to his efforts to work closely with Mr. Karzai’s government and move forward on other issues. Depending on how quickly the program starts running it could also help NATO forces control the Taliban in areas where NATO soldiers are thin on the ground.