Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is moving to sharply increase Afghan police forces drawn from villages in southern provinces, and is employing the help of former mujahedeen commanders to recruit them, NATO officials said.
The mujahedeen were Afghan guerrilla fighters trained and backed by the United States to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. They later fought against the Taliban and helped topple them from power in 2001.
Under President Hamid Karzai, they were gradually disarmed and demobilized. But many maintain fearsome reputations and have deep links in communities that can be revived to gather intelligence and raise forces quickly.
NATO commanders hope that they can be used to help raise as many as 30,000 local police officers within six months, providing a critical element to help the government and coalition forces hold on to areas newly cleared of Taliban insurgents, the officials said.
Previous efforts to raise local defense forces have failed, largely because of a lack of support in communities and from the government. The police, meanwhile, have a reputation for poor discipline, drug abuse and corruption, and have proved easy prey for the Taliban.
Though some NATO commanders remain cautious about using the mujahedeen, others say the village-based forces can work as part of the coordinated military and civilian strategy that has begun to gain traction in the south since the arrival of 30,000 more American troops and thousands of extra Afghan troops this year.
Under the plan, the new forces will be approved by local councils, or shuras, to ensure that they have the support of all constituencies, that old rivalries between commanders and tribes are not reactivated, and that one faction does not gather too much power to itself.
“Then you partner it up effectively with I.S.A.F. and with the Afghan National Police, then you have got a very real possibility of keeping the Taliban out,” said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the departing British commander of coalition forces in the southern region, referring to the International Security Assistance Force of NATO.
Still, many, even in NATO, have reservations about recruiting and arming loosely controlled forces. Many Afghans, too, including President Karzai, are wary of empowering private militias, given the factional fighting among mujahedeen groups in the 1990s and the more recent tensions caused by Afghanistan’s private security companies.
General Petraeus had agreed with President Karzai to a pilot program of 10,000 such local Afghan policemen shortly after taking command in July. Recruitment has already begun in some places to expand that plan, with the blessing of the Karzai government.
On a recent day, General Carter sat with Afghan and American commanders on the roof terrace at the district headquarters of Arghandab, just north of the city of Kandahar, discussing how to consolidate their hold over areas cleared three weeks before.
“How quickly can you recruit 300 local police?” he asked a former mujahedeen commander, Hajji Hafizullah. “Can you bring them for training by tomorrow?” By the end of the meeting, the district governor was signing the papers of several dozen local men who will form the local police force.
General Carter calls the new forces “sons of the shura,” because they require approval by everyone on the traditional council of elders to prevent them from becoming what he called “one bloke’s militia.” The plan has clear echoes of the Sons of Iraq, the neighborhood militias that helped turn around violence there.
General Carter, who completed his one-year tour on Nov. 2, contends that the local forces can provide insight in the Taliban heartland, here in Kandahar Province and in neighboring provinces.
He said one early mistake he made was to remove the discredited local police from Marja, in Helmand Province, ahead of the large-scale operation against the Taliban there in February. Without leaving some of them there to provide important local intelligence, General Carter said, “we did not really have an understanding of what was going on probably for about four to six weeks.”
American Marines holding Marja have been plagued by the reinfiltration of insurgents since the operation. NATO commanders are bracing themselves for the same trouble in the newly cleared districts around Kandahar.
“The challenge always is what happens when a resurgent Taliban tries to come back and tries to undermine the security that you are trying to establish,” General Carter said. “And that we should expect on and off over the next few months.”
Whatever their reputation for excess, the former mujahedeen know their areas and their people like no one else. They have also proved themselves brave enough to stand up to the Taliban. “These guys have the clout to make people braver,” General Carter said.
Local police officers, trained and supervised by American Special Forces, are already operating in a number of places, including part of Marja and an area in Arghandab, and Special Forces units are already looking to recruit men in the newly cleared horn of Panjwai in Kandahar Province, said Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the coalition director of operations in the south.
“It is promising, but the jury is still out,” he said in an interview.