By Heidi Vogt
KABUL, Afghanistan – The village-level fighting forces the U.S. is fostering in hopes of countering the Taliban insurgency — the concept that turned the tide of the Iraq war — are having a rocky start, with complaints that recruits are not consistently vetted for ties to criminals and warlords.
Afghan National Army Soldier marches with Latvian army Maj. Juris Abolins, leading Latvian officer in the Observer, Mentor, Liaison Team, and members of the U.S. Army and Afghan National Police, after returning from Observation Post Bari Alai near the town of Nishagam in Konar province, Afghanistan, March 18. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew C. Moeller)
The Associated Press talked to elders, police officials and community leaders from 12 of the first 25 districts in the Afghan Local Police program and found reactions ranging from glowing praise to condemnation and fear, suggesting that promised safeguards aren't always applied.
The U.S. hopes the nascent project will spark uprisings against the Taliban akin to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, in which private militias rose up against al-Qaida.
But the ALP initiative has stirred worries it will legitimize existing private militias, or create new ones. Warlord-led militias ravaged Afghanistan in the 1990s, opening the way for the Taliban takeover.
President Hamid Karzai only agreed to support the program after thwarting several earlier U.S.-backed plans that he said threatened his government's authority. The ALP is supposed to be more accountable, and NATO officials say Karzai is considering more than doubling the recruitment target to 20,400 to accommodate all the districts approved for the force. About 2,000 Afghans are already enrolled.
But there is harsh criticism from some of the vanguard districts.
The Kabul-based head of the program, Gen. Khan Mohammad Ahmadzai, said that while there are hiccups, ALP is making a difference in some particularly violent districts. And Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO forces commander, told the AP by e-mail that a system exists to address the criticisms — "site validation visits" by government and local officials.
Each unit is supposed to consist of 250-300 men approved by community elders, the Afghan government and NATO forces, and overseen by local police. Once vetted and trained, they are given guns, uniforms and a small salary to watch over their community.
But recruits in western Herat province's Shindand district are precisely those who are supposed to be kept out, said the head of the district government.
"These people who have been recruited up to this point, they are not good people. They have criminal backgrounds," said Lal Mohammad Omerzai. He said police officials consulted community leaders for the first three days, then dumped the procedure.
"They just come, recruit people and send them to the police chief, then they start their training," Omerzai said.
District Police Chief Ghulam Sarwar said he is not in charge of the local police and was given no opportunity to properly vet them.
"The Interior Ministry just told me to sign them up, so I signed it. This has all been imposed," Sarwar said. Since then, all of their activities and payments have been overseen by U.S. Special Forces, he said.
The approximately 200 local police in Shindand include militia fighters, former Taliban and local strongmen, Sarwar said, adding that many villagers have asked him to keep the force out of their neighborhoods.
Mirwais Khan, a Shindand shopkeeper, said his village refused to participate out of fears about who would be recruited.
"During the past 30 years they were involved in the killing and looting and fighting. How do you give a guarantee for such people?" he asked. He said there is a powerful militia in his village that will protect the local police from punishment if they start abusing the people.
Ahmadzai, the program head, said these sortw of criticisms were the exception largely based on unwarranted fears that hated militias will return.
"We are making them uniforms and preparing the people. It's a step-by-step process," Ahmadzai said. He pointed to successes such as Gizab district in southern Uruzgan province, saying it was a Taliban base for years until the local police started up a few months ago.
Written rules say each local ALP commander answers to the district police chief, recruits are on probation for a year, and NATO can blacklist someone against whom they have evidence, Ahmadzai said.
"The time of powerful men is finished. We are not going to let anyone who is powerful take this over," he said.
In Matow village in Farah province, local councilor Abdul Habib said the vetting there is robust and the area is getting safer.
"It's like a filter three times over. The elders filter, the council filters and the chief of police filters," he said, and any one who later breaks that trust is kicked out.
But in northern Takhar province's Darkhat district, ALP chief Nurullah said most of his fledgling ALP group previously fought for a warlord named Qazi Kabir Murzban, who has been accused of involvement with drug gangs and is now a member of parliament. Several local Afghans said he still commands a militia of more than 1,000 men in the Darkhat area, though the locals declined to give their names for fear of reprisal.
Murzban denied the allegations, saying he was not involved in the drug trade and has even helped the Afghan government find and destroy illegal narcotics in Takhar. Murzban said he no longer has a private fighting force, only the standard four bodyguards provided to parliamentarians.
"Qazi Kabir was our boss and he provided the example by fighting against the Taliban," said Nurullah, who goes by one name like many Afghans. He said he has recruited about 50 men into the local police, all of whom have been approved by the elders and local council. They are receiving food stipends but not yet salaries or weapons, he said.
And in eastern Paktika province, Nawab Waziri, a provincial councilor for Barmal district said many elders there had rejected the ALP. Supporters of the program are tied to a local strongman named Commander Aziz who is trying to expand his influence in the area, Waziri said.
"The international troops wanted to just impose this. They were pushy. It is not fair to force this on people," he said.
U.S. military officials insist it's an Afghan effort that they are supporting, and that the vetting process will keep out undesirables.
The program, announced in July, has progressed slowly because its overseers need to get to know comunities elders and establish their bona fides, according to a U.S. military official familiar with the local police. The official spoke anonymously to avoid making public comments about an Afghan government initiative.
Each group's size has been been limited so as not to overshadow the regular police, the official said, and some approved districts have yet to start recruiting precisely because officials are not certain they understand the community power dynamic.
The official said, however, that the initiatives in Shindand and Barmal are strong.
The past six years has seen a slew of government- or NATO-backed militia programs whose safeguards failed to take hold. The most recent — a 2009 program in eastern Wardak province — quickly fell prey to warlords who forced their followers onto the force, according to a report by the Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.
The Wardak force is still active with about 1,000 fighters across a number of districts, provincial spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said. The plan, he said, is to convert them all into Afghan Local Police.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, contributed to this report.