NATO officials say they have reversed a disturbing trend in northern Afghanistan.
In 2009 and 2010, Taliban insurgents made inroads across the north of the country, which had been secure for years. NATO says that last year it brought the north back under control, but Afghan officials say it's thanks to one of the most controversial American tactics here: the use of ad hoc local militias.
American officials say they intend to triple the number of local "police" teams in the coming years and put all the groups under Afghan government control. But some residents complain that the militias are not much different from the insurgents they're supposed to be fighting.
Advantage Of An Insider
A hilltop police station in the northern province of Sari Pul would command a view of the town of Sayat, if the whole valley weren't cloaked in a dense cloud that threatens snow at any moment.
The approach road to the outpost is steep and thick with mud that clings to the flimsy boots and sneakers police wear. A few Afghan Local Police, or ALP, stand shivering at the gate.
They're not fully trained police officers or soldiers, but graduates of a cram-course in counteracting the Taliban. Despite the limited training, some do have one key advantage for performing the job: They were Taliban fighters until last year.
Inside the station, Col. Ghafur, head of police in Sayat, is feeding logs into what appears to be the only woodstove on the hill. Ghafur, who uses only one name, is with the national police, but he says it's the ALP that turned security around in Sari Pul.
One year ago, it was bad here, Ghafur says, but then the ALP was created and it defeated the Taliban. Ghafur says the men are from the communities, so they can tell much better than an outsider when a Taliban infiltrator arrives.
That's especially true for those who were previously with the Taliban, Ghafur says. He invites half a dozen former Taliban members into his office, where they eagerly crowd around the oil-drum woodstove.
Mir Ahmad has gray stubble covering his face; he says he's 46. A few years ago, he says, he was falsely accused of being with the insurgents. He fled his village and felt he had no where to turn but the Taliban. At the time, it was easy to join, since the insurgents controlled the district.
But Ahmad says he saw the Taliban abusing civilians, and he stopped believing in their claims of holy war.
As might be expected, all the men swear they were never really committed to the Taliban cause. That may be true, but it leaves some residents wondering how committed they are to any cause.
Residents of another northern community are asking the same thing. At the twice-weekly market in Char Bolak, in Balkh province, villagers come from miles around to sell everything from winter coats to livestock. Residents say the Taliban controlled this town a year ago.
Now it's guarded by another auxiliary police program called the Critical Infrastructure Police, or CIP. In fact, there have been at least half a dozen different programs like this set up in the past six years, mostly run directly by the American military.
Shop owners at the market say there are no more Taliban in town, but claim the CIP is almost as bad.
They know no one will arrest them, so they rob whomever they want, says Mir Alam, who is selling wheat in one stall. He says ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, are often singled out by these police, and they have sometimes squeezed protection money out of entire villages. Last month, complaints reached President Hamid Karzai's office, and he called for the CIP to disband.
After The International Troops Leave
U.S. military commanders say they are in the process of vetting all of the different police militias and folding them into the ALP, which will be under direct Afghan control. They also plan to triple the number of ALP. That plan is worrying to monitors, like Rachel Reid, who researched the ALP for Human Rights Watch.
"You've got now a series of effectively rival militias lined up against each another. They may be calm now, but when we come to a situation where ... the Americans have left, the money's running out, what do those groups do then?" she says.
"Who are they loyal to? Do they stay calm then? Do they fight for their nation? Do they fight for their community? Do they fight for their commander? That's what Afghans are most concerned about," she says.
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