US attacks UK plan to arm Afghan militias

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The US general in charge of training the Afghan police has criticised British-backed plans to arm local militias in an attempt to defeat the Taliban. The remarks by Maj-Gen Robert Cone, the second most senior US soldier in Afghanistan, are likely to deepen the row between London and Washington over how to counter the insurgency.

General Cone, who is in charge of rebuilding the Afghan police force, is the second US commander to condemn the initiative. He said: "Anything that detracts from a professional, well-trained, well-led police force is not the answer."

Last month, Gordon Brown said Britain would increase its support for "community defence initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modelled on traditional Afghan arbakai". The arbakai system involves arming untrained Afghani men, who agree to come running at the beating of a drum if their village elders feel threatened.

British diplomats and military strategists in the restive southern province of Helmand hope the idea might bolster Afghanistan's fledgling police force, which is unable to defend itself against attacks by Taliban insurgents. At least 10 officers died yesterday in a Taliban attack on a checkpoint in Kandahar. But US officials fear that arbakai fighters would fall under the command of warlords disloyal to the Afghan government. Their reluctance to endorse the plan follows a disastrous international initiative to build an "auxiliary" police force, which was scrapped last year.

Auxiliary officers were given assault rifles and uniforms after just a few days of rudimentary training, on the understanding that they would be required only to police the area they came from. "The auxiliary police was an attempt to take short-cuts," said General Cone, warning that there were similarities between the doomed auxiliaries and Mr Brown's arbakai plan. "It is very important to understand why the Afghan National Auxiliary Police Force did not work, as we look at any informal programme that doesn't promote professional policing," he added.

Analysts also fear the introduction of arbakai would undo years of effort by the United Nations to disarm illegal militias.

General Cone's remarks follow earlier criticism of the idea by the commander of the 37-nation Nato coalition in Afghanistan. General Dan McNeill said the plan would work only in small parts of the countryside which did not include Helmand, where most of Britain's 7,700 troops are stationed. He said: "My information, from studying Afghan history, is that arbakai works only in Paktia, Khost and the southern portion of Paktika, and it's not likely to work beyond those geographic locations."

General Cone is leading a root-and-branch reform of the Afghan police force, which has been ill-equipped, badly paid, poorly trained and dogged by corruption since 2001. The US government has pledged $7.4bn (£3.7bn) to improve Afghan security forces between now and October. But General Cone admitted there was no "model of what policing should be" in the country. "When Afghan people understand what well-trained, well-paid police do, they will demand it," he added. "But right now they are just not familiar."

He said he backed greater community involvement in the police if it meant "neighbourhood-watch type programmes" rather than arming and paying local people.

Britain has faced increasing criticism from allies in recent months for championing alternative tactics to defeat the Taliban. The Prime Minister promised more "tribal engagement" during a recent visit to Kabul. But last month the Afghan government expelled two UN and EU diplomats for meeting commanders sympathetic to insurgents.