MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan – A U.S.-backed plan to create militias and give them guns to fight the Taliban is drawing criticism from local authorities in areas where the first units are being rolled out, raising questions as to whether the effort can succeed in Afghanistan.
The militias have been compared to the U.S.-fostered Awakening Councils in Iraq, which have often been credited with reducing violence there, and are similar to neighboring Pakistan's tribal armies which also have been touted as a success.
On Saturday, Afghanistan's interior minister announced the program had begun, and that the United States would be paying for all aspects, including buying Kalashnikov automatic rifles for members of the Afghan Public Protection Force.
One skeptical Afghan official said only criminals would join because most citizens wouldn't want to face the Taliban in combat. And critics question the wisdom of handing out weapons to Afghans when the government and U.N. have been trying to reduce the number of arms in the country. They fear the plan could stoke rivalries between ethnic groups with a bloody past.
"One of the causes of violence in Afghanistan is because most people do not give up their weapons. Now you want to again give weapons to the villages?" said Mohammed Hussain Fahimi, the deputy of the provincial council in Wardak, where officials say the units will be first deployed. "We never learn our lessons."
Wardak lies southwest of the capital of Kabul and is increasingly falling under Taliban control, illustrating the growing influence of the Islamic insurgents in the years since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Fahimi was one of several government officials and residents interviewed in Wardak by The Associated Press last week, all of whom expressed skepticism about the plan.
President Barack Obama has said stabilizing Afghanistan will be a U.S. priority and plans to nearly double the number of American troops from the roughly 34,000 in the country today.
He has not commented on the militia plan, but it has been endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and the former top commander in Iraq whose outreach to Sunni sheiks helped oust militants from key areas and sharply decreased attacks.
Officials say the force will be guarding highways, schools, clinics and other government institutions. It is still not clear how large and widespread the militias will be.
Col. Greg Julian, the U.S. military's spokesman in Afghanistan, said the United States will mentor, train and give back-up to the new village forces, but Afghanistan's interior ministry is in charge of the program.
While Iraq's Awakening Councils are made up along tribal lines, officials say the militias in Afghanistan are to be drawn up by the local councils who are being told to make their choices based on character, not tribal affiliations.
Yet few Afghans believed tribal loyalties can be avoided, with many fearful the new force would fall under the control of local warlords who could even join with the Taliban.
Another council member, Mohammed Mukhlis, predicted only thieves and criminals would join the force, mostly because no one would risk being killed by the Taliban to defend the discredited government.
"For the last seven years, the government didn't do anything for the nation, so people in the districts don't trust them," he said.
Mukhlis's home of Saydabad will be one of the first areas to get the militias he opposes. Overrun by Taliban, Mukhlis can no longer go to his home and has moved to a walled compound closer to Kabul.
"Right now I am safe here, but I don't know if in another few months I will have to move again, even closer to Kabul, to escape Taliban," he said.
Wrangling by Afghanistan's various non-Pashtun ethnic groups has also marred the establishment of the village militias, officials said.
The tribes in Afghanistan's east and south — where the militias will be needed the most — are almost exclusively Pashtun, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Non-Pashtuns balk at arming ethnic Pashtuns while disarming the rest of the country.
Saleh Mohammed Registani, an ethnic Tajik member of parliament, warned that a newly armed Pashtun militia would create deeper fissures between Afghanistan's Pashtun and non-Pashtun people, who are struggling to heal from decades of retaliatory attacks and discrimination.
"If this goes ahead, the south will become a no-go place for non-Pashtuns and it will encourage other people to find weapons to defend themselves," Registani said. "As a non-Pashtun, if I know someone has weapons, I won't go there. These militias will eventually come together with Taliban because they are all Pashtuns and they will not fight against each other."
History also suggests the militias may not work.
In the 1980s, the communist government of President Najibullah, besieged by U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighters, put the job of securing villages in the hands of village militias. That backfired because villagers, frustrated by the heavy-handedness of the militias, turned to the mujahedeen for security.
The United Nations has been struggling since the collapse of the Taliban to disarm Afghanistan's myriad militias, many of the gunmen loyal to warlords. The U.N. has spent millions of dollars on its Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program, which was launched within months of the Taliban's ouster — although some say it really got going two years late.
The plan included collecting weapons and integrating warlords' private militias into army and police units. But while thousands of pieces of weaponry have been handed in, much of it is said to be antiquated. Many warlords, meanwhile, have retained their militias.
"When you give everyone weapons, everyone will think they are king," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "It's not just a mistake, it is stupid."
Joanna Nathan, an Afghan analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, called the militias a "quick fix" to a deteriorating security situation by both the international forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
A similar project in 2006 armed thousands of "auxiliary police." It was soon disbanded, Nathan said, with a third joining the police and the rest disappearing — along with their weapons.
"It's a constant cycle of quick fixes," she said.
Part the problem is the regular turnover of international officials who want to show some improvement during their watch and offer up new proposals.
"Every few years, another set of foreigners come in and they all need to demonstrate real change in their time."
Nathan said money and training should be invested in Afghanistan's police as the "absolute priority at the district level."
She also said there should be an effort at "really cleaning up the Interior Ministry."
"We are going to have to grit our teeth and focus on the long term," Nathan added. "There are no quick solutions."