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Killer Infiltrators Threaten Afghan Community Policing Effort

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan Local Police (A.L.P.) carries his weapon as he walks with German soldiers on March 27. Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images.

For years, U.S. military commanders from the president on down have been touting the importance of training Afghanistan’s military and police forces. If Afghans can’t defend themselves, the thinking goes, then any gains made by coalition forces over the last 11 years of war will be lost as soon as the bulk of U.S. forces leave the country in 2014.

But last Saturday the head of the American Special Operations Command in Afghanistan suspended training for a small part of the Afghan security force (the Afghan Local Police, or A.L.P. program) partly due to the deaths of five special operators at the hands of their Afghan mentees in August.

The A.L.P. program aims to train and arm local militias who operate under the authority of village councils, with the ostensible aim of keeping their own communities safe. NATO officials told the New York Times that the program involves about 16,000 Afghans, a drop in the bucket compared to a total troop-strength of 350,000 in the entire Afghan national security apparatus.

But the program’s philosophy — that U.S. forces can teach Afghans how to protect Afghans — is integral to the both the American military’s plan for Afghanistan and their ability to leave the country in some semblance of order.

These latest killings, and the temporary halting of new recruits to the A.L.P. program, highlight the difficulties with this philosophy, said Thomas Johnson, director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School. “The last thing we need to do in Afghanistan is create more armed thugs at the village level.”

He points to this Human Rights Watch report on A.L.P. that describes a force out of control, committing robberies, rapes and murders with impunity. One portion of the report describes how in April 2011, A.L.P. members in Baghlan province grabbed a 13-year-old boy off the street and “took him to the house of an A.L.P. sub-commander where he was gang-raped.” No arrests had been made by the time of the report’s publication.

But there are strong arguments in favor of building local forces in Afghanistan that can maintain order at the village level, especially in far-flung rural areas, many miles from district centers.

“The aim is to help locals stand-up a very small, community-watch-form of oversight in villages, administered at the governmental level, in this case the Ministry of Interior,” said Seth Jones*, who worked for the Assistant Secretary of Defense from 2010-2011. Jones adds that there is a historic precedent for this style of community policing in Afghanistan, stretching back to the middle of the last century.

Jones argues that infiltration of groups like A.L.P. by people loyal to the Taliban or Haqqani network may show that these community-based programs are working. He said that such groups are likely “concerned about the program because of its impact on their control in rural areas…they feel threatened.” In response, these insurgents have stepped up their efforts to infiltrate the community policing groups as well as the national army and police forces.

Johnson thinks that the increase in infiltrators to all branches of the Afghan security forces is due to a very different reason: the desperation of NATO commanders to sign up as many young men as possible, to boost the overall numbers of those serving.

“We’ve been trying to get the number so high,” he said, “to get to that 350,000 level, that we’ve allowed a lot of people into these services that probably shouldn’t be there.”

He sums up the situation in stark but simple terms: “You’re a warm body, hey join up.”

Editor’s Note: *Our original article incorrectly attributed the comments made by Seth Jones to retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl.

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