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U.S. Battles to Train Local Forces in Afghanistan

July 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Next: a report from Afghanistan on efforts to build up local forces to fight the Taliban.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: For years, the international community has been trying to beef up the Afghan national army and police, with mixed, often disappointing, results. Other U.S.-backed Afghan security programs have received less attention.

But that’s what Kabul-based correspondent Jean MacKenzie focused on in recent reports on the international Web site GlobalPost. Her reporting took her to several provinces beyond the capital. Jean is in the U.S. now and joins us from Boston.

And, Jean, welcome.

You looked at a couple of these sorts of programs set up in particular since the Obama surge began. These exist outside the formal Afghan police and army structure. What was the thinking behind it? Why do this?

JEAN MACKENZIE, GlobalPost: Well, the thinking behind it was to increase the numbers of security forces as quickly as possible, and to try to get some handle on a situation that is deteriorating quite rapidly.

They wanted to use the disaffection that many communities feel towards the Taliban, focus that, and direct it in a form that has a chance of counteracting the insurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let’s look at the first one you looked at, which was one in Wardak Province, fairly close to Kabul. The road between the two just last year, early last year, was a — pretty much a no-go zone. Marines went in there and also set up a local militia. How did it operate and what were the results?

JEAN MACKENZIE: It operated by bringing about 1,200 men into something called the Afghan Public Protection Program, or AP3 for short.

These men, many of whom had returned from working abroad, some of whom had come in from joining the Taliban, were given a salary of approximately $180 a month. They were given three weeks of training, a uniform, empowered to carry a gun, and told to — to protect their communities.

They were not formal police. They were not auxiliary police. They were more of a community watch-type program — only, they were armed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you reported that, actually, the province did become more secure. Yet, this model has not been replicated elsewhere. Why is that?

JEAN MACKENZIE: Well, the province did become more secure in part. And many people, including the governor, attribute this to the Afghan Public Protection Program.

However, it’s equally possible that the increase in security is owed to the fact that U.S. Marines established a base at about the same time. What they have found is that the program has had very limited success. It has in many ways become a magnet for the Taliban. There is a certain amount of coordination and collaboration between the AP3 and the Taliban that people do not understand, that the Americans do not seem to understand very well.

And the thinking is that there are better ways of trying to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s look at another way that you looked at. It’s in Kandahar and a number of other provinces. How does that one work? And what’s different about it from the Wardak version?

JEAN MACKENZIE: The local defense initiative, or what’s now being called village stability platforms, doesn’t rely on bringing men in and giving them a salary or a uniform or a gun.

Rather, it is empowering tribes — these programs are mostly in the Pashtun regions — empowering tribes who feel that they want to fight the Taliban, giving them some training, empowering them to carry guns, and hoping that they will, in fact, keep the Taliban out of their communities.

MARGARET WARNER: But you found it actually did cause some violence that was unanticipated, or some intra-tribal violence?

JEAN MACKENZIE: That has happened in several of the places where this was tried.

The problem is that, in the first place, the first major program was in Nangarhar Province. And a certain tribe, the Shinwari, were promised up to a million dollars in reconstruction aid. Now, this caused problems with other tribes in the area and also within the Shinwari tribe itself. One branch was promised the money. The other branch was not.

So, rather than coming together, rather than providing cohesion for this tribe, the promises and the money caused factionalism that resulted in violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, General Petraeus has just taken over command of Afghan forces, as we know. Do the military people you’re talking to there think he’s going to continue these?

JEAN MACKENZIE: Yes.

In fact, we have seen several new areas receiving these village stability platforms just in the past month or so. This seems to be the wave of the future. There’s a great emphasis on trying to gear up the Afghan national security forces, of course, but also in these less formal type groupings to — to try anything really to counteract the insurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: You reported, though, this is not popular or well-regarded among the civilian leadership of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, i.e., the ambassador, the embassy.

JEAN MACKENZIE: There seems to be some difference of opinion between the civilian side and the military side.

In fact, a little over a month ago, the American Embassy issued a directive that no civilians, no American civilians would be involved in this type of programming. The village stability platforms, as they’re now known, seem to set in motion forces that we do not understand very well and do not seem very well able to regulate.

So, I think that there — there is quite a difference of opinion between the two sides here.

MARGARET WARNER: And quite a lot for General Petraeus to sort out.

Jean MacKenzie from GlobalPost, thank you so much.

JEAN MACKENZIE: Thank you, Margaret.