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Can militias contain the Taleban?

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Afghans armed to fight Taleban

By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Paktia province, south-east Afghanistan

A lone gunman comes into view as we drive across the frozen plateau of Ahmadabad district. We are eyed closely.

As we move along the road, more gunmen appear, standing guard at junctions, checking cars along the road, keeping watch outside buildings.

We are in the centre of Paktia province, in south-eastern Afghanistan. Winter has encrusted the highlands in snow and ice. It is cold, beautiful and dangerous.

The insurgency has raged and grown in this part of the country. Paktia borders Pakistan and is a route for insurgents coming into the country. The Taleban and al-Qaeda have a growing presence here and clashes between them and government and foreign forces have escalated.

But Ahmadabad district is an exception, thanks to the gunmen of the Arbakai, a tribal militia that has protected this area and its people for centuries, making it something of a safe-haven from the violence all around.

Elusive progress

Neither the Taleban nor foreign forces have a presence in this district. There are just 30 police officers for the entire area, so it is left to the Arbakai to defend the local population.

Haji Gulam Khan
This is not provision of guns to the communities, this is not favouring one ethnic group
Hanif Atmar
Afghan interior minister
They are a volunteer force of men and boys, armed with old rifles and true grit. They are part of a traditional code of conduct and honour called Pashtunwali.

The tribal elder is Haji Gulam Khan. He tells us that the area is stable and that there is a good relationship between the people and the government.

He is in no doubt who to thank: "If it weren't for the Arbakai, this area would've been controlled by the Taleban or mafia groups."

And while he talks to us, development work gets under way. We watch a band of Pakistani engineers in bright-orange jackets work to install pylons which will bring electricity to the district for the very first time. It's the kind of progress that has been elusive elsewhere.

Haji Gulam Khan compares the work underway here to other unstable areas.

"We've been able to do reconstruction and development, unlike places like Kandahar and Helmand where there's been insecurity and fighting," he says.

Some think the Arbakai provide a role model for stemming the violence elsewhere in the country. A little more than a year ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke about "community defence initiatives" as a way of dismantling the insurgency.

It received a cold reception from Washington at the time but since then the US, together with the Afghan government, has been fine-tuning a variation on the theme of putting local people in charge of their own security.

They will be called a "Public Protection Force" (PPF) and come under the control of the ministry of the interior. Some 200 recruits from each district will be given weapons and uniforms.

The first trial run will start in Wardak, a province that saw a rise in Taleban and criminal activity last year.

'Ludicrous'

The government is adamant they will be different from the Arbakai and emphatically "not a militia".

"This is not provision of guns to the communities, this is not favouring one ethnic group over another," Interior Minister Hanif Atmar says.

Arbakai tribal militiaman
Ahmadabad district has remained largely unaffected by the insurgency

That is certainly the fear of many critics who have been vociferous in their opposition. One Western official described the plan as "ludicrous". Others point to the failed attempt by the Soviet Union to introduce a similar idea during its occupation of the country.

The Taleban will not care what they are called. Its latest DVD specifically asks people not to join the new armed groups.

"The invading forces are trying to turn Afghans against each other, so the infidels can save their own skin," it says.

The insurgents warn people of the consequences if they do: "If you face us in the battlefield then your death and the death of Americans is the same."

The new protection force is just one part of a joint American-Afghan strategy to try to stop the spread of the insurgency. When the snows of Paktia melt, the battle will resume again and many are predicting this will be a particularly long and bloody summer.

Security remains by far the number one concern for Afghans and the time left for the government and its foreign-backers to make a difference is rapidly diminishing.

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