Top Pentagon Commander Visits Afghanistan

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is reviewing a new community-based defense program recently started in an increasingly violent province on the doorstep of Kabul.

Adm. Mike Mullen visited Wardak province on Wednesday, where U.S. troops deployed for the first time this year. The program he's assessing draws volunteers from Afghan communities to defend their villages against militants.

"The early reviews are positive," Mullen told The Associated Press. "We are in the beginning stages, and this is a pilot, and we chose Wardak because it is such a critical province, and that's why I came today to see how things are going on the ground."

Mullen said that Wardak was "critical for the security of Kabul."

Earlier this month in Wardak, 240 Afghans -- a ragtag collection of farmers, students and other unemployed men -- completed three weeks of training for the Afghan Public Protection Force. Though the program is U.S.-funded, it is overseen by the Afghan Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the country's security forces.

The community-based force has echoes in the American military's efforts in Iraq to form alliances with Sunni Arab tribesmen. The Sunni militias helped turn the tide in Iraq, contributing to a dramatic reduction in violence, but friction has arisen between the militias and the Shiite-led government. There have been clashes in recent weeks.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the AP earlier this month that if the Wardak program is successful, the community defense initiative will be expanded to other parts of the country.

Mullen met with Wardak's governor Wednesday and gave a Purple Heart to Pfc. Edward Church, who was wounded by a February roadside bomb in neighboring Logar province. Church is with the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Combat Brigade Team.

Mullen also congratulated the 10th Mountain troops for a successful transition to Afghanistan. The unit had first been scheduled to go to Iraq, but the U.S. has increased its focus on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in recent months.

President Barack Obama this year ordered 21,000 new troops to the Central Asian country to bolster the record 38,000 already there. Taliban and other militants have made a violent comeback the last three years after what appeared to be an initial defeat following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.