KABUL | Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his national security team endorsed a U.S.-backed plan Wednesday to set up local police forces across the country, allowing villagers to protect themselves in areas where international and Afghan forces can't be spared.
The new Local Police Force initiative will be overseen by the Afghan government. That was a key demand of Mr. Karzai, who fears that simply arming villagers without government oversight would essentially create local militias that could undermine his administration and possibly provoke a new civil war.
Mr. Karzai's office offered no details about the plan, other than a statement released Wednesday evening saying the Local Police Force would be under the direct supervision of the Interior Ministry.
NATO officials declined to publicly comment on the program, even though NATO Commander Gen. David H. Petraeus has been intimately involved in discussions about it in recent days at the presidential palace. However, a coalition official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed U.S. backing of the plan.
"The challenge we've got is that we've got a huge area," British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, a NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, said earlier this week. "We've got a large quantity of population and we can't be everywhere.
"And what the village stability operations allow us is the opportunity to give the Afghans the courage to take protection into their own hands, so we don't have to put conventional forces there."
Gen. Carter said local police forces have to be set up cautiously.
"What you don't want to do is disconnect those population centers from the government," Gen. Carter said. "What we're trying to do throughout everything we do in this campaign is connect the government to the population."
Several local defense initiatives have been tried across the country, the statement said. These forces would be swept into the Local Police Force.
The local policing plan in Afghanistan is somewhat akin to the Awakening Councils in Iraq where Gen. Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq, reached out to Sunni sheiks — a move credited for helping oust militants from key areas and sharply decreasing attacks.
In Afghanistan, however, there are fears that local police forces will fall under the control of local warlords. Critics question the wisdom of handing out weapons to Afghans in the middle of a war. And they fear the plan could stoke rivalries among ethnic groups in a country that has been in conflict for 30 years.