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Local Militias to Help Battle Growing Taliban Resistance in Afghanistan

December 25, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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U.S. and Afghan leaders are preparing to arm local militia groups to help curb rising Taliban violence in Afghanistan. The strategy comes from similar successful efforts in Iraq. Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reports on the development.
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JEFFREY BROWN: With a resurgent Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, President-elect Obama has promised a renewed focus on the country, and 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops will be sent there over the next year.

Yesterday, the Pentagon confirmed another strategy, modeled on one used in Iraq: arming local militias to help fight the Taliban. The first of these is set to be deployed early next year.

New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins is in Kabul. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Dexter, why does the military say it’s making this move? What’s behind it?

DEXTER FILKINS, New York Times: Well, I think it’s an urgent situation. The simple truth here — you know, for the past seven years, it’s been that there aren’t enough troops on the ground. There aren’t enough American troops or British troops or Canadian troops, and there aren’t enough Afghan police or Afghan army officers.

So, you know, I think the feeling is we’ve got to do something and we’ve got to do it really quick. And that’s — I think that’s what has brought everyone to this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it known who would make up these private militias and what exactly their mission would be?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I mean, I think that’s — you know, those are the big questions. But I think what the military’s doing here is, frankly, taking a page from Iraq, the experience in Iraq.

And if you remember, there’s been this dramatic — quite dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq. And that is largely attributable to not merely the surge, but this phenomenon called the Awakening, where, you know, we now have in Iraq 100,000 Sunni gunmen on the payroll, many of whom were former insurgents.

And that’s this very kind of strange contraption that they’ve built there, and it’s keeping the peace. I mean, it’s, you know, a relative peace.

And so I think what they’d like to do ideally is duplicate that here. I think, you know, that’s a much trickier proposition. They’re very, very different countries.

Iraq is a very tribal place, much more so than Afghanistan is. There’s just been so much social disintegration here after 30 years of war that, you know, it’s hard to put these things back together.

And so I think it’s going to be really difficult. They’re going to go into these villages, and they’re going to go into the neighborhoods here, and they’re going to try to recruit people, and say, you know, “Here’s a Kalashnikov and a couple days of training. You know, will you work for us?”

Debate over the plan

Dexter Filkins
New York Times
People are concerned that if you go into an area and you give 200 guys guns that you don't know much about, you know, what are they going to do when you go home? What are they going to do at night? I think that's what people are concerned about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your article suggested that there was a fair amount of debate and obvious concern in Afghanistan about making a move like this, how much control anybody would have over these militias, whether it might lead -- you even quote someone as suggesting it may lead to a new civil war.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, absolutely. There's a lot of concern here. A plan similar to this went before the Afghan senate a couple of months ago and it was defeated. I mean, it didn't go anywhere.

And I think, you know, this is a country where the biggest scourge of -- you know, apart from the Taliban -- and they're kind of related -- are the warlords. And they've been fighting warlords here because the government has broken down, you know, for decades.

And so people -- you know, people hate the warlords. And warlords are, you know, mean guys with guns and so -- running around and doing whatever they want. And, you know, Afghanistan has had enough of those.

And so I think people are concerned that if you go into an area and you give 200 guys guns that you don't know much about, you know, what are they going to do when you go home? What are they going to do at night? I think that's what people are concerned about.

You know, I think the Americans and the Afghan officers here, I think they know these things, and I think, you know, they realize these things. And so I'm sure they'll do their best to try to keep these groups under control. But that's going to be their big test.

Few changes after six years

Dexter Filkins
New York Times
Coming back after six years away, what strikes me is how little [Kabul] has changed. And what I mean by that is, you know, you drive down these streets, the buildings are still destroyed. There hasn't been much development. There's still open sewers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I wonder, you and I talked here in Washington a few months ago about your new book. And part of that, of course, was your experience in Afghanistan back in 2002.

To give us some impressions of what it's like to be there now in terms of how does it feel in the sense of control, the sense of violence -- well, what are your impressions?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, Afghanistan's such an extraordinary country. I mean, it's the most beautiful place on Earth. Anybody who's been here will tell you that.

You know, I'm in Kabul, the capital. It's at 5,000 feet, and it's ringed by these beautiful mountains. It's astonishing; it's an amazing place.

But having said that, coming back after six years away, what strikes me is how little the place has changed. And what I mean by that is, you know, you drive down these streets, the buildings are still destroyed. There hasn't been much development. There's still open sewers. You know, the Kabul River is dried up and filled with garbage.

And that's kind of the way it was in 2002. And I think it's a measure of, you know, just how troubled the whole project here is.

You know, there's been something like $15 billion spent on trying to rebuild this country, which was completely destroyed, again, from 30 years of war. And it just -- there isn't that much evidence for it.

You know, and so I think the other thing that I've been struck by is not -- you know, is not just, you know, how destroyed the place still is, but also how obviously corrupt the government is. And that's something that is on everybody's lips here, is how corrupt everybody is from top to bottom.

A 'pilot program'

Dexter Filkins
New York Times
Wardak province, it's right outside of town. I mean, it's a 20-minute drive from here. I can't go there. It's basically, as it's been described to me, it's pretty much under the control of the Taliban. They have a free run of the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one last thing. Let me ask you briefly one last thing about the private militias again. I gather from your report that this is a kind of pilot program they're going to start with and, if it works, then they're going to try to spin it out around the rest of the country.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes. Yes. They're going to start it in the province kind of, just outside of town here, to the west. It's called Wardak province. And that's an important area, because, I mean, it's not just that it's right outside the capital and the Taliban are pretty much in control there. I mean, the Taliban have the capital here pretty much surrounded.

But Wardak is -- it's the place where the very, very important highway -- really, the only highway in the country -- runs from Kabul to Kandahar down in the south.

But just to give you an example of Wardak province, it's right outside of town. I mean, it's a 20-minute drive from here. I can't go there. It's basically, as it's been described to me, it's pretty much under the control of the Taliban. They have a free run of the place. They attack the convoys on the highway whenever they want.

We had a discussion yesterday with a Taliban commander who said, you know, "It's ours and the people are with us." Now, who knows? But I think -- I think that's a measure of how difficult things are going to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, thanks so much for joining us on the holiday. Take care.

DEXTER FILKINS: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.