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Plan to arm tribes sparks Afghan fear


KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan government may form armed tribes in the troubled south in an emergency attempt to protect villages from the Taliban and other insurgents.

But experts say such a move could have dire consequences for the country, which has struggled to disarm militias and other fighters since the fall of the Taliban almost five years ago.

Critics say the plan has jeopardized disarmament nationwide and could fuel tribal rivalries in the south. They also say the plan indicates the failure of the country's attempts to train new police and soldiers.

"It's an admission that maybe these programs aren't working very well," said Peter Babbington, head of the United Nations-supported program working to disarm fighters after the country's 23 years of war. "The view from the international community is deep concern that we are going to be arming people we've earlier disarmed."

The new plan shows how bad security is in the border areas of Afghanistan, where a Taliban-led insurgency has mounted its biggest challenge to the fledgling Afghan government. In recent months, the Taliban has taken over districts in Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces, prompting the largest offensive by the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops since the Taliban fled in late 2001.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S.-led coalition said yesterday that its troops and Afghan forces had killed more than 80 militants in fighting across southern Afghanistan. In one case, insurgents used civilians as shields to escape.

Coalition troops battled more than 40 extremists in a five-hour gunbattle Friday in southern Uruzgan province, the military said in a statement, according to the AP.

Many villagers in the south are terrified. The Afghan police often do not have enough officers or weapons to stop the Taliban or tribal rivalries. Each district has 45 police officers to protect as many as 130,000 people spread out over hilly terrain linked by bad roads.

At a recent meeting with tribal elders, President Hamid Karzai said he wanted to use local tribesmen to strengthen police and fight terrorists. And at a news conference last week, Karzai insisted that the government would not form militias, still remembered bitterly for their country's civil war. "We never wanted to arm militias," he said.

Government officials said that any new forces would be "community police," similar to such programs in the West and that this was an emergency measure.

"The idea is to strengthen police in the districts," said Jawed Ludin, the president's chief of staff. "Otherwise, we are going to be endlessly losing battles against terrorists."

Karim Rahimi, Karzai's spokesman, said any newly armed men would be loyal to the government, not to one person.

Details of the new security plan, however, seem to shift weekly, largely because of the outraged reaction of Western and Asian diplomats and foreign-aid workers, who believe that these "community police" are old militias in disguise.

In Afghanistan, "militia" is a loaded word, conjuring images of ragtag soldiers loyal only to a local strongman or warlord and one ethnic group or tribe. Militiamen were heroes during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. But after the Soviets pulled out, and the country descended into civil war in the 1990s, militias dragged the country further into chaos.

Despite its brutality, the Taliban was credited with neutralizing most militias.

Several government officials said the plan would increase the number of police in every troubled district from 45 to 200. There could be 2,800 men recruited, or as many as 10,000. But no one seems to know how the men would be paid, how they would be equipped and whether they would receive any training or just be handed a gun and a uniform.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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