Handing out guns in Afghanistan has been risky business through the ages, yet arming Afghan village defense forces is central to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' strategy against the Taliban. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is taking a page out of the counterinsurgency manual he drafted for Iraq, where he successfully coaxed Sunni Arab fighters into government-allied local defense units. But that doesn't mean it will work to hire local hands in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan, where several foreign powers have tried and failed to control the gunmen. Americans often are accused of having short memories, but Afghans clearly recall the Russian-recruited militias that brutalized the countryside and then fought one another in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. International forces have worked to disarm militias since the fall of the Taliban.
There are good arguments for engaging villagers to defend their own neighborhoods in remote areas of southern Afghanistan that are not firmly under the control of U.S.-backed government forces or the Taliban, not the least of which is that Petraeus doesn't have enough international and Afghan government troops to protect every hamlet against Taliban infiltration. But even if he did, outsiders typically are viewed with suspicion, while locals have better intelligence and a stake in protecting their families. They are the best eyes and ears on the ground. The squads will receive minimal defensive training from Special Forces, and uniforms, weapons and a monthly salary that is intended to give them a stake in the central government of President Hamid Karzai as well. That should free seasoned combat troops for battle in heavily contested areas.