A small, little-noticed counterinsurgency force that was created in the ninth year of the Afghanistan War is proving to be the key for U.S. troops to leave the country in victory.
The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is becoming so effective that Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi privately protested to U.S. commanders that too few of these units were being formed in the north, his power base, a defense official told The Washington Times.
The U.S. military now is shifting gears and establishing more units there.
The relatively tiny force is part of a Village Stability Operations program designed to defeat the rural insurgency that is the Taliban. But a little more than a year after it was created, the ALP is leading commanders to think it is the answer to the long-vexing problem of holding a village after NATO troops clear it of the enemy.
“I think it’s going to continue to be an important mechanism for holding the ground in Afghanistan,” Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
The Afghan Local Police is unlike the Afghan National Police, which uses volunteers from various regions to patrol and protect areas far from home. The local force is dedicated to one village and is made up of men chosen by anti-Taliban village elders for their loyalty.
Trained by U.S. special-operations forces, such as Army Green Berets, local police are geared for defense, not offense.
“The Taliban are very threatened by the ALP because the significant terrain, the key terrain in the counterinsurgency, is the human terrain,” Gen. Allen said. “And the Afghan Local Police deny the human terrain to the Taliban.”
Mr. Mohammadi, who is in charge of Afghanistan’s internal security, said the U.S. has set up too many local police units in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, at the expense of northern provinces where his brethren reside, a defense official said.
An ethnic Tajik, Mr. Mohammadi was a leader in the Northern Alliance, which partnered with the U.S. invading force in October 2001 to oust Taliban rule in Kabul.
“The interior minister wanted to stop us from [forming ALP units in] any more villages until he gets a couple of village sites up in the north, which of course from our perspective we don’t need them because the north is relatively secure,” the defense official told The Times.
“The Tajiks fear the arming of the Pashtuns in the south and what is going to happen with all those weapons and armed policemen when we leave in 2014.”
A Pentagon map of ALP units shows the vast majority in the south and east, with fewer planned for the north.
Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman in Kabul, told The Times: “At the request of the Afghan Ministry of Interior, we are accelerating our efforts to help establish additional ALP sites in the north. This decision has not halted ALP validations or training in other parts of the country. In fact, we processed more than 600 new ALP candidates into ALP programs in the east and southeast over the past week.”
Mr. Mohammadi’s concern is the latest rift between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the U.S.-led NATO command.
‘Arm the locals’
Mr. Karzai has demanded an end to nighttime raids by U.S. special-operations forces. In the wake of the slaughter of 17 civilians this month, he also has called for NATO troops to leave all villages.
The Afghan Local Police force now stands at 12,000 officers, shy of the 30,000 planned.
“You arm the locals, give them some training and make them responsible for security,” the defense official said. “There are now thousands of Afghan policemen in the villages who were not there a year ago. It’s become the American exit strategy.”
The most recent Pentagon progress report on Afghanistan, filed in October, singled out the local police as a success story.
“The ALP program continues to increase in strength and effectiveness, and the ALP have proven to be a significant threat to the insurgency in key areas throughout Afghanistan,” the report said.
“In response to this, insurgents have engaged in intimidation campaigns and targeted assassinations against ALP members and their families. These attacks have largely failed to intimidate ALP forces and local communities, which continue to defend their villages effectively against insurgent attacks.”
Gen. Allen said the ALP is getting under the Taliban’s skin. The NATO command has intercepted Taliban chatter among fighters: “If you can kill an ALP commander, it’s worth 10 coalition soldiers.”
At some point, the Afghans will have to decide whether to retain the local police, expand it or fold the officers into the national force.
If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, the local police are holding it.
“I take heart in the success of the Afghan Local Police as potentially a model and an indicator of how this will unfold,” Gen. Allen said.