December 11, 2011, 9:51 A.M. ET
KABUL–The commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces has backed the expansion of a controversial local militia program in Afghanistan that has been criticized by human-rights groups, saying it has been successful in securing remote parts of the country.
Adm. William McRaven, who gave a joint interview to three news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, on a visit to Kabul over the weekend, said the so-called Afghan Local Police forces have an important role to play, especially in places where the coalition presence is sparse.
"It's a good program that I think is well received now by the Afghans and certainly by the locals," Adm. McRaven said in the interview on a Special Operations base in Kabul. "My instinct is that we'll probably increase it, but that remains to be seen."
Photo: U.S. Special Forces and Afghan Militia Force [AMF] mercenaries confront villagers during a raid upon Narizah in late August. Source: Wally Santana, AP photo.
Adm. McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who until recently headed the secretive Joint Special Operations Command overseeing many kill and capture missions, has been hailed as the mastermind of the U.S. raid into Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden in May.
He arrived in Afghanistan this weekend, on his first official trip here since being promoted to commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in August, to assess the progress of the ALP program and to examine the future role of his command as coalition forces withdraw.
Even as the U.S. is pulling out some 33,000 conventional troops by September, Adm. McRaven said the Pentagon might at the same time expand the numbers of Special Operations forces in Afghanistan. "There is an opportunity for us to grow somewhat in the near term," he said. "It remains to be seen what that would look like."
Coalition troops, mostly from the Special Operations community, and the Afghan government have trained nearly 10,000 members of the ALP in more than 55 districts across Afghanistan since the controversial program began last year.
While President Hamid Karzai initially opposed the plan, fearing it would create uncontrollable militias, the ALP project was aggressively championed by then coalition commander Gen. David Petraeus, who likened these units to "a community watch with AK-47s."
Under the program, Afghan villagers receive three weeks of training and deploy, usually under U.S. Special Operations forces supervision, to protect their home turf against the Taliban.
The U.S. military is preparing to triple the number of local fighters in the program over the next two years, with 30,000 members set to fan out in 99 districts, said Col. John Evans, deputy commanding officer of Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command in Afghanistan.
Initially, the ALP fighters—whose pay is lower than that of regular Afghan policemen and soldiers—were supposed to be absorbed by the Afghan National Police. But the U.S. and the Afghan government are now considering expanding the program and retaining the ALP as a permanent feature, Col. Evans said.
"It is supposed to expire in 2015," he said. "Right now we're talking about and discussing should there be an enduring presence beyond that."
Human-rights groups have expressed concerns about expanding the reach and scope of what is essentially a militia force whose members have been accused of extorting local residents, killing civilians, raping women and forcibly recruiting children.
In a report presented to the U.S.-led military last week, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Liaison Council aid groups warned that ALP abuses are prompting a growing number of Afghans to flee their communities.
The paper reported a 51% rise in the number of Afghans forced from their homes by the conflict in the first 10 months of the year?
The ALP militias, the report concluded, were compounding insurgent threats.
"Poorly disciplined units are failing to provide protection for civilians," said Dan Tyler, the Norwegian Refugee Council's protection and advocacy adviser in Afghanistan. "Weak vetting mechanisms, loose command structures, poor training and a lack of oversight and accountability all appear to be contributing to human-rights violations."
Along with the independent Norwegian aid group, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam have also raised significant concerns about poor oversight of the ALP.
"The fact that displacement is up so much and the ALP is looking like a factor should cause some serious soul-searching before anyone goes ahead with expanding and extending the program," said Heather Barr, the Human Rights Watch researcher in Afghanistan.
Adm. McRaven said he was aware of the concerns, but said he has seen no solid reports to indicate that the Afghan forces working with U.S. mentors had created significant problems.
"I've heard anecdotes about that, but I'm not sure I've seen it on the ground," he said.