Lessons from Iraq? US creates local militias to fight Taliban
With echoes of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, the US is arming, training, and paying Afghans to set up village militias.
Maydan Shahr, Afghanistan
At first sight, Muhammad Nasim Gul and his men – in drab, olive-colored fatigues and baseball caps to match – look like Cuban guerrillas. They slowly patrol the muddy streets of Wardak Province, weapons drawn in a constant state of alert.Skip to next paragraph
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They stand sentry, night and day, on the watch for intruders and other enemies. At times they stop to talk to the townsfolk, to see if anyone has had any trouble recently.
Mr. Gul and his fellow tribesmen are part of an ambitious new American-backed program that started here two weeks ago to train, uniform, and arm locals against the Taliban. Officials turned to the idea following the success of a similar plan in Iraq, known as the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribes were armed to fight Al Qaeda. They hope the program, dubbed the "Afghan Public Protection Force," can help stem the worsening violence here.
"My tribesmen joined this force to protect our village," says Mr. Gul, a former policeman who is now a commander in the protection force of the Jalrez district of Wardak, a 30-minute drive from Kabul.
Under the plan, members of each district shura (council) in Wardak nominate locals for the force who are then trained for three weeks by Afghans (with the involvement of American advisers). They then return to their home districts, receiving nearly $125 dollars a month in salary – more than the typical police income, which is usually less than $100 a month. If successful in Wardak, officials plan to expand the program to more than 40 other districts across the south and east.
Afghan and American officials stress that the force is not a tribal militia. "The shuras [which nominate the force] are not from one or two tribes, so they will bring people from all the villages," says Barna Karimi, director-general of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, a government body that works with the local shuras.
Pitting one ethnic group against another?
But in practice, the force is shaping up along tribal and ethnic lines. In Jalrez, one of two districts where the program has started, only 38 of the 128 members of the force are Pashtuns. The rest belong to other ethnic minority groups. But the Taliban and its supporters are almost entirely Pashtun, as is the majority of Jalrez district.
Of the 38 Pashtuns in the Jalrez force, all belong to a single tribe, the Kharoti. Several locals say that other tribes in the area refused to join. "We are the only tribe that joined this program," says commander Gul. "All of the rest of the tribes are angry at us and think we are helping the infidels."
"Unfortunately, most of the tribes living in these areas are not supportive of the current government," says Mr. Rahmani, "and they are not likely to fight against the insurgents."
Critics of the program contend that arming specific tribes is dangerous in a country with a recent history of civil war.
But government officials defend the composition of the force, saying it can fight the insurgency only with those who are most willing, regardless of ethnicity or tribe.
Recruits don't want to fight Taliban
While in Iraq the Sunni tribes were asked to fight against outsiders – Al Qaeda – in Wardak the majority of insurgents are locals. "People in my district are pessimistic about the effectiveness of these forces," says Roshanak Wardak, a parliamentarian from Saydabad district. "They say that if they joined, they would end up fighting their own brothers, because the Taliban in my district are locals; they are not from Pakistan or Kandahar."