KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—The U.S. military will soon launch a pilot program to raise local militias, paid by the Pentagon, in an effort to improve security throughout the country.
The plan is modeled in part on a similar program in Iraq to build up Sunni neighborhood militias. But officials warn that the forces must be carefully vetted to avoid repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan's past, notably bolstering local warlords.
For months, Congress has been asking how soon the military could roll out "some sort of Awakening movement"—a reference to the Iraq program—in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. After initially being rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the plan was developed this fall and approved just over two weeks ago.
But some senior U.S. officials worry privately about launching a program modeled on the U.S.-financed militias of Iraq, given the considerable differences in the wars.
In Iraq, Sunni tribes that fought in the insurgency grew fed up with Al Qaeda in Iraq and decided to work with the U.S. military, forming armed militias—initially dubbed Concerned Local Citizens and, later, the Sons of Iraq. They were soon collecting salaries from the U.S. military, which proved a powerful incentive to work with U.S. troops.
Though critics argued that the program amounted to bribery and warned that progress could be reversed if the payments stopped, it has been widely credited with helping to bring down the levels of violence throughout the country.
For more than one year, U.S. military forces have lobbied hard to shift the Sons of Iraq, turning the militiamen into members of the Iraqi national police and the Army. Though many have moved over, there has been considerable push-back from the predominantly Shiite government of Iraq, nervous about empowering large groups of Sunnis. In response, the U.S. military also began working to create job programs and vocational training for the men.
Lately, however, there is growing concern about the militias. Some in the Sons of Iraq have accused Iraq's government of discrimination and baseless detentions, a development that is being closely watched throughout the rest of the country. In the still-violent Diyala province, north of Baghdad, some members of the SOI were arrested by local police, which created a national stir. "Every one of them were detained on an official Iraqi warrant, based on charges, based on statements made by warrant," says Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. That said, he added, they are closely monitoring the situation. "We're working with the government of Iraq to work through some of these issues with the SOI. I've spoken with the prime minister, and if we find that some are detained unnecessarily, we'll work together to release them."
The new program in Afghanistan, tentatively dubbed the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, has a number of backers. Two weeks ago, it was approved by President Karzai, with the endorsement of the ministers of interior and defense. "There is common agreement among the Afghan leadership, people, and international forces that there needs to be a bottom-up approach to security and progress in this country, as well as a top-down central government approach," says Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
As in Iraq, the Afghan forces would be on the U.S. payroll, which officials hope will also entice some former insurgents to work with NATO forces. "We bring money so we can hire young men to be the first line of defense" in small towns throughout Afghanistan, says a senior U.S. military official in Kabul. "We wouldn't be surprised if some of them used to be insurgents. We figure this is a way to crack the nut."
The pilot program will differ from the Iraq model, McKiernan adds. While the Sons of Iraq groups were often assembled by local tribes, the tribes of Afghanistan are in disarray, weakened by decades of war. U.S. forces plan to convene special shuras, or meetings of elders, to select the candidates and vouch for them.