WASHINGTON – The Obama administration plans to double the size of a rural police force in Afghanistan and arm it with heavier weapons to fight insurgents as U.S. troops withdraw, despite Pentagon and Afghan government concern about the village self-defense units becoming predatory criminal gangs or defecting to the Taliban.
The danger was highlighted Friday when a new member of the Afghan Local Police shot and killed two U.S. special operations troops and wounded a third moments after they gave him his service weapon during a ceremony for new recruits in the western province of Farah.
The attacker, who had joined the force just five days earlier, was about to take part in his first weapons-training session on a firing range. Instead, he opened fire on the U.S. troops and fellow police. He was killed by return fire.
It was the latest in an intensifying spate of lethal “insider” attacks on NATO troops by Afghan soldiers, police and other government forces, causing growing alarm at the Pentagon. Afghan security forces have killed 24 Americans and 15 other Western soldiers so far this year. Nine have died in the last 11 days.
A 122-page report by the Defense Department’s inspector general reveals glaring problems within the rural police system, which was set up with U.S. backing two years ago and has become a pivotal part of the U.S. strategy to safeguard territorial gains and maintain political stability as Western nations withdraw most combat forces by the end of 2014.
U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the NATO military force in Afghanistan, has ordered the 16,000-strong rural police force to be increased to 30,000 officers over the next two years, and then possibly expanded further.
The report, issued last month, credits the police with “significant and unexpected success” in expelling insurgent fighters from some remote villages and districts.
But many Afghan officials worry that the widely dispersed units will evolve into marauding criminal gangs or free-wheeling militias loyal to local warlords after departing U.S. forces stop paying their salaries, according to the inspector general’s report.
“Why would I arm the villagers when they may use those weapons against the (government) in the future?” provincial governors and district chiefs in eastern Afghanistan asked U.S. special forces officers, according to the report.
For that reason, officials at the Afghan Ministry of Defense are opposing U.S. plans to double the size of the village guard force and increase its firepower, the report notes.
Local elders are supposed to guarantee the loyalty of police in the villages where they are recruited. But adding thousands more recruits increases the risk that insurgents will infiltrate the force and that village units could become private armies for local leaders, the report warns.