KABUL (Reuters) - The United States backs a proposed Afghan government plan to engage tribal elders in the war against the resurgent Taliban, a move seen by critics as reviving militias, its top envoy said on Tuesday.
Although, seven years on from the Taliban’s ouster, there are nearly 70,000 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan — to be boosted by up to 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers by the summer — alongside tens of thousands of Afghan forces, William Wood said this was not enough to protect all Afghan villages from the militants.
Called the “Community Guard Programme,” the pilot project will cover southern and eastern areas where the al Qaeda-backed Taliban are most active, said Wood.
“The ... programme ... is meant to strengthen local communities and local tribes in their ability to protect what they consider to be their traditional homes,” Wood told a news conference at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
In Iraq, the recruitment of Sunni Arab tribesmen to help fight al Qaeda is widely seen as one of the factors behind a decline in the level of violence.
Wood has served as Washington’s top diplomat to Afghanistan for nearly 20 months and will stay in the job for some time after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20. Obama has promised to make Afghanistan a top priority.
Community Shuras, or councils, will choose volunteers for defending their villages against the Taliban under the plan, proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Wood said.
“Once the group has been identified, they will receive training and clothing and other support,” he said, adding the groups would be in contact with Afghan and foreign forces to seek reinforcements should the need arise when fighting the Taliban.
Wood said successive governments in Afghanistan had relied for centuries on tribal chiefs and community leaders for protecting their villages.
He refused to say who would provide arms to the groups, but emphasized that the United States was not doing so.
Many ordinary Afghans and some politicians have spoken against the plan, which comes amid an escalation in violence this year in Afghanistan, the bloodiest period since Taliban’s ouster.
Arming or forming militias is fraught with problems in Afghanistan where long-standing, complex ethnic, tribal and local rivalries often pit one village, valley, tribe or region against another.
For some, the project is reminiscent of the forming of militia groups by the ex-Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The militias were regarded then as a “divide and rule” policy of Moscow and were involved in many of the bloodiest battles that continued for years after the Red Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Editing by Alex Richardson