KABUL, Afghanistan – After intensive negotiations with NATO military commanders, the Afghan government on Wednesday approved a program to establish local defense forces that American military officials hope will help remote areas of the country thwart attacks by Taliban insurgents.
Details of the plan are sketchy, but Americans had been promoting the force as a crucial stopgap to combat rising violence here and frustration with the slow pace of training permanent professional security forces – the bottom-line condition for the American military to begin pulling back from an increasingly unpopular war. Many parts of Afghanistan have no soldiers or police officers on the ground.
Over 12 days of talks, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new NATO commander, overcame the objections of President Hamid Karzai, who had worried that the forces could harden into militias that his weak government could not control. In the end, the two sides agreed that the forces would be under the supervision of the Afghan Interior Ministry, which will also be their paymaster.
“They would not be militias,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, at a briefing in Washington on Wednesday. “These would be government-formed, government-paid, government-uniformed local police units who would keep any eye out for bad guys – in their neighborhoods, in their communities – and who would, in turn, work with the Afghan police forces and the Afghan Army, to keep them out of their towns.”
It is, he added, “a temporary solution to a very real, near-term problem.”
The program borrows from the largely successful Awakening groups that General Petraeus created in Iraq, though the two programs would not be identical. Unlike the Iraqi units, the Afghan forces would not be composed of insurgents who had switched sides. They would be similar as a lightly armed, trained and, significantly, paid force in a nation starving for jobs.
In fact, the program runs the risk of becoming too popular – it will create a demand in poor communities around the nation that could turn it into an unwieldy and ineffective job creation program.
While some American officials said the forces could have as many as 10,000 people enrolled, Afghan officials indicated that they wanted to keep them small, especially in the beginning.
Questions remain, too, about whether the Interior Ministry will be able to manage the forces. While the ministry’s leadership in Kabul has been working recently to reduce graft, the police at every level are widely viewed as corrupt and, in many places, incompetent.
American military officials said, however, that they would be intimately involved, and that United States Special Forces units, which have created smaller-scale programs locally, especially in southern Afghanistan, would continue to set up and train the forces.
The agreement was hammered out during a particularly violent spasm in the war here. Seven American service members were killed on Tuesday and Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, and one NATO soldier died of wounds received earlier in the week in the unstable south of the country.
The negotiations were an early test for General Petraeus, appointed overall commander in Afghanistan last month, both in pushing a difficult war forward and forging ties with Mr. Karzai, an often prickly and unpredictable partner against the Taliban.
The relatively fast agreement on this new force could give momentum to the general’s efforts to work closely with Mr. Karzai’s government and move forward on other, still harder issues, including improving Afghan governing skills and decreasing corruption.
Depending on how quickly the program starts running, it could also help NATO forces control the Taliban in areas where there are few NATO soldiers. People close to Mr. Karzai said he had resisted earlier efforts to expand another iteration of the program that was largely created by the Americans and organized by Special Forces units because he feared that it could undercut his government’s power and foster the creation of militias.
“We have tribal rivalries, and tribes may think they can benefit from this, and it could strengthen rivals in a village,” Waheed Omar, the spokesman for the Afghan president, said in an interview this week. “We don’t want a short-term objective to endanger a long-term objective for security.”
Another worry was creating any government structures reminiscent of the period of Communist rule here, when Muhammad Najibullah, then the president, created local armed forces to help bolster the government’s fight against rebels – a move that alienated many Afghans.
This week, General Petraeus offered a new proposal that included a number of elements to help make the program more acceptable to Mr. Karzai. Mr. Omar said that the president was looking for agreement on safeguards to ensure that the program did not get out of control.
It was particularly important to Mr. Karzai that it come under his government’s jurisdiction, that the forces be uniformed and that their chain of command run through the Interior Ministry because several other local forces created during nearly nine years of war here had only a tangential relationship to the Afghan authorities – or undermined them.
The new Afghan forces will be armed, but their role will be “purely defensive,” said a senior NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
“In some cases people may bring their own stuff, but part of the goal of getting government support is to standardize equipment,” he said. “They will be armed and equipped and trained to defend their communities.”
Community defense has deep cultural roots in Afghanistan, where local men form village watch groups to keep out foes. The hope is that villagers will be comfortable with the new units because they are familiar with the concept.
There are now several different semiofficial armed forces operating in the country; they would all be “gradually disbanded and reintegrated” into a single new force named the Local Police Force, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Afghan National Security Council.
One major risk of the program, which all sides tacitly acknowledge, is that it will multiply the number of well-armed people in Afghanistan, which even with safeguards could foster fighting rather than quell it.
For that reason, perhaps, both Mr. Karzai’s administration and the American military are describing it as a short-term remedy to the problem of a lack of police officers and soldiers in many areas of the country.
“Our position has been to develop a solution that bridges between having nothing and having Afghan National Police, and this program does that,” said the senior NATO official. “So it’s a good development and especially so since it has consensus within the Afghan government and the ownership that come with that,” he said.