By Matthew Green in Kabul
General David Petraeus, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, plans to triple a scheme that has armed thousands of village recruits, dismissing fears that the strategy could nurture a new generation of warlords.
With violence in Afghanistan rising and Nato allies anxious to hand over to Afghan forces in 2014, Gen Petraeus wants to bolster security, in part by sending 12-man teams of US special forces to train locals.
Human rights groups and aid agencies have called for the plan to be scrapped, fearing it threatens to fuel conflicts and empower the kind of militia commanders who ravaged Afghanistan during years of civil war in the 1990s. The government of Hamid Karzai, the president, has also been wary of similar initiatives.
But Gen Petraeus said the scheme was vital in enlisting the support of locals.
“The idea is that these actually mobilise not just individuals, but communities,” he told the Financial Times. “Elders support it. The elders also police it to a degree.”
The plan has echoes of the approach Gen Petraeus adopted while commanding the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, where he encouraged the Awakening movement of Sunni tribes that helped curb violence.
But he said the Afghan Local Police – as the plan is known – would be a very different exercise. It aims to work with the government to reach often isolated areas where people wanted help to resist the Taliban.
To critics, the scheme represents a quick-fix solution adopted to meet political pressures for withdrawal in western capitals.
Since Gen Petraeus took command of international forces in Afghanistan in July, the programme has been started in 17 sites, with a total of more than 3,100 paid recruits, he said. The Nato-led force is awaiting Afghan government approval for more than 40 additional sites, and hopes to add another 4,500 men by spring, a US military official said.
The recruits, whose biometric data is recorded, are given a salary, registered weapons and khaki uniforms. Their primary role is to man checkpoints or patrol their home areas.
General Petraeus says the training is being conducted with the oversight of Afghan authorities, local government, police and elders. “They work for the district chief of police, not a local warlord or elder or power-broker,” he said.
Nato allies have launched a sucession of similar schemes with scant success, but US officials believe extra resources and closer collaboration with the government will deliver results. A similar programme, the Local Defence Initiative, ran into problems last year when it donated $1m to the Shinwari tribe in the eastern Nangahar Province, which became embroiled in a land dispute last year instead of fighting the Taliban, according to Oxfam.