|A defense force member patrolled in the Arghandab District. The United States hopes the force will help defeat insurgents. (Rajiv Chandrasekaran/Washington Post)|
US forces training Afghan villagers to watch for Taliban
ARGHANDAB DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters used to swagger with impunity through this farming village, threatening to assassinate government collaborators. They seeded the main thoroughfare, a dirt road with moonlike craters, with land mines. They paid local men to attack US and Afghan troops.
Then, beginning in late February, a small detachment of US Special Forces soldiers organized nearly two dozen villagers into an armed Afghan-style neighborhood watch group.
These days, the bazaar is thriving. The schoolhouse has reopened. People in the area have become confident enough to report Taliban activity to the village defense force and the police. As a consequence, insurgent attacks have nearly ceased and US soldiers have not hit a single roadside bomb in the area in two months, according to the detachment.
“Everyone feels safer now,’’ said Nasarullah, one of two gray-bearded tribal elders in charge of the village force. “Nobody worries about getting killed anymore.’’
The rapid and profound changes have generated excitement among top US military officials in Afghanistan, fueling hope that such groups could reverse insurgent gains by providing the population a degree of protection that the police, the Afghan army and even international military forces have been unable to deliver.
But plans to expand the program have been stymied by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who fears the teams could turn into offensive militias, the sorts of which wreaked havoc on the country in the 1990s and prompted the rise of the Taliban. “This is playing with fire,’’ an Afghan government official said. “These groups may bring us security today, but what happens tomorrow?’’
Citing Karzai’s objections, Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, has blocked the release of money needed to broaden the initiative. He also has instructed State Department personnel in the country not to assist the effort until the Afghan government endorses it.
In addition to sharing Karzai’s concerns about what would happen to the local defense forces once US oversight ends, Eikenberry and other embassy officials worry that the program would weaken the central government in the eyes of the public and compete with efforts to build up the nation’s army and police.
“At the end of the day, how sustainable would a program like this be?’’ said a State Department official based in Kabul, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal disputes.
“It runs counter to the goal of giving the state a monopoly of force.’’
The military’s interest in local-defense initiatives is driven in large part by President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing combat forces, which has increased pressure on commanders to demonstrate clear progress in their counterinsurgency mission this year.
Some military officials have expressed frustration that US diplomats in Kabul have not done more to lobby Karzai and other Afghan officials to change their minds.