- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

MAIDAN SHAR, Afghanistan | The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to hire thousands of tribesmen as guards to compensate for a lack of official security forces, prompting fears in the U.S. military of confusion and bloodshed during Aug. 20 elections.

The guards are to be drafted by local district councils in at least 17 high-risk provinces and will be paid $160 for one month, coalition and Afghan officials said.

The move, made a little more than a week before election day, worries some U.S. military commanders.

“How do we recognize [the temporary guards] and integrate them into the Afghan security plan?” asked Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, a U.S. infantry commander in Wardak province, just west of Kabul. “We’re supporting their plan, but in our role as a support for the elections, I still need to know who they are and what their responsibilities are.”

Days before the elections for a president and parliament, those details are still being worked out, said Mohammad Halim Fidai, governor of Wardak province.

Mr. Fidai said the Afghan government has hired 15,000 tribesmen for the project nationwide. They will be issued identification cards but no weapons or uniforms.

Other Afghan officials have said the guards will be issued uniforms and provide their own weapons, provided they are registered with authorities, according to the Associated Press.

At a pre-election security meeting for Afghan national security forces and coalition forces in Wardak on Wednesday night, no representative from the newly promised guards was present. The plan calls for 540 guards for Wardak.

“The head of the shura [local council] is the leader of them,” Mr. Fidai told the assembled security leaders, describing this effort as “a community-led security force.”

“They will be at each polling station,” he said.

Col. David Haight, commander of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, said he is worried that confusion will be generated by the influx of ad hoc security forces.

“ID cards are insufficient,” Col. Haight said. “I [am concerned about] the possibility that we could shoot innocent guards.”

Yet as the election nears, concerns are growing that there are too many polling sites and too few Afghan army and police to provide security.

The Taliban has repeatedly warned voters to stay away from the polls and has threatened to try to disrupt the elections.

Earlier this week, Taliban gunmen attacked the governor’s compound in Logar province just south of Kabul, leaving four people dead.

Wardak police chief Gen. Muzafardeen says he supports the initiative.

“We have in our country some young poor guys. So if our government is providing them a job, and some money, these guys will come and support the government,” he said. “But if we dont give them a job, the enemy will use them against the government.”

Maj. Gen. Alim Kohistani, operations officer for the Interior Ministry, said: “Their position is to prevent the terrorists from entering the polling site.”

Residents of Wardak province are familiar with attempts to empower local militias through the tribal system.

For nearly a year, U.S. Special Forces have been working to train and legitimize local guards chosen by the tribal leaders and paid through the Interior Ministry.

Afghan security forces currently run checkpoints and conduct neighborhood patrols.

Local villagers say the additional guards have improved security, allowing them to do business at night, but the program has not expanded beyond Wardak province.

In the past, coalition troops have trained members of a national auxiliary police force in some parts of the country, where it became a steppingstone to becoming part of the Afghan national police. But the auxiliary police program never materialized in Wardak.

That lack of follow-through adds to Col. Haight’s concerns. He worries that there is no plan to stand down thousands of local guards once the government legitimizes them for election day.

“Disarming a recognized force is not easy,” he said.

But Matt Sherman, a civilian political adviser to the 3rd Brigade, views the plan as a positive sign that the Afghan government is addressing its own security problems.

“They’re organizing for a purpose,” he said, “It’s another test for this government.”

It was not clear whether the Afghan government has any plans to retain the temporary force and eventually try to incorporate it into national security forces.

Maqbool Ahmad, an aide to Arif Noorzai, who heads the Independent Directorate for the Protection of Public Properties and Highways by Tribal Support, told the AP that authorities would decide on the project’s future after about a month.

The nation has a history of being carved up by tribal militias loyal to local warlords, which happened after the Soviet pullout in 1989. The resulting chaos helped the Taliban come to power by the mid-1990s.

In military action Wednesday, helicopter-borne U.S. Marines backed by Harrier jets stormed a Taliban-held town in southern Afghanistan before dawn, the launch of an operation to uproot Taliban fighters from a longtime base.

The troops exchanged heavy fire with insurgents, killing at least seven in an offensive that they hoped also would cut Taliban supply lines and isolate their fighters, according to the AP, which had a journalist embedded with the Marines.

It was the first time NATO troops had entered Dahaneh, which has been under Taliban control for years.

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