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.
Vetting these forces is one of the chief concerns for forces on the ground here. "We need to make sure we're employing the right people to provide security for the population," says the U.S. military official in Kabul.
And avoiding bolstering or creating local warlords with infusions of cash—which happened once before, early in the war here—will entail making sure that power isn't concentrated in any one group, says a senior U.S. military official who traveled with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his recent trip to the region. He adds that the U.S. military has told local elders, "We're going to help you, but you have to agree among yourselves and empower certain leaders to work with those who want to work with you, in coordination with the national government so you're not creating some parallel structure."
While the groups will be paid by the Pentagon, the U.S. official in Kabul notes that their salaries "won't be close" to what Afghan soldiers or police earn and that, as in Iraq, they will not be given weapons. "They're generally already armed," adds the official traveling with Gates.
Despite the difficulties, the military has high hopes for the program. "It's a de facto way of reconciliation," says the U.S. military official in Kabul. That said, he notes, NATO will be closely monitoring the new program. "There were considerable challenges [with the SOI] in Iraq," adds the official recently traveling with Gates. "And there will be considerable challenges in Afghanistan."