President Obama’s decision to remove 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, followed by the withdrawal of the remaining 23,000 “surge” forces by next summer and a further “steady pace” reduction of troops until the 2014 transition to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remains a source of controversy.

The president recently visited Fort Drum, New York, the home of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed units since 2001, to explain his decision and reassure the soldiers that “your Commander-in-Chief has your back.” Yet, while the debate over the decision continues among national security experts, now is the time for senior military leaders and planners to assess how the announced timeline affects the current strategy in Afghanistan.  

One of the most interesting points in the address , Obama’s statement regarding the establishment of “local police forces,” is getting very little attention.  As the name implies, local police are not the same as the Afghan National Police (ANP) and represents a complementary, but significantly different, approach to provide security across the country.

In August 2010, President Hamid Karzai established the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program under the authority of the Ministry of Interior (MoI). The U.S. – funded program is focused at the village level and targets rural areas that have limited coalition and/or ANSF presence in order to close the so-called “security gaps.” The goal of the program is to provide support to local villages and build capacity so that they can provide for their own security. Outgoing ISAF commander David Petraeus, who views the ALP as a critical part of his COIN strategy, effectively summarized the program as “a community watch with AK-47s.”

The ALP program offers some unique advantages over the more centralized ANP. ALP members are nominated by a representative Shura Council (a “traditional” decision-making body for Afghans), are vetted by the MoI, and are trained by U.S. Special Forces. The ALP is a defensive force that is relatively small (typically 30 per village and 300 per district) with members drawn from the village and their activity limited to the local area. Because ALP members are recruited from the villages in which they live, they have a clear understanding of who belongs in the village, and who does not. ALP units formally report to the District Chief of Police (who works for the MoI) and their numbers are growing — as of April 2011, there were more than 5,400 ALP members operating in 38 validated districts. The MoI currently has authority for 10,000 ALP members, compared with the much larger ANP that currently numbers over 125,000 personnel. However, as Petraeus explained in his recent Congressional testimony, “The initiative does more than just allow the arming of local forces and the conduct of limited defensive missions; through the way each unit is established, this program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas. For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”  Thus, from a COIN perspective, ALP forces are critical to denying the Taliban and other insurgent groups freedom of movement and the ability to establish safe havens in rural areas. 

Clearly, this is a program with potentially huge strategic benefits. However, the major constraint associated is time; this program cannot be “rushed” without risking failure. Because the program requires the village to formally request participation, Special Operations Forces (SOF) operating in Afghanistan have recently initiated and expanded Village Stability Operations (VSO) that require small units to move to and live in numerous villages that are potential sites for ALP forces.  Here, these units work daily with village elders to explain and demonstrate the advantages of improved security and working with the Afghan government, as well as exploring potential development opportunities.

Unfortunately, not all villages are willing to volunteer for the ALP program. Many elders are afraid of Taliban reprisals, skeptical about the ability of the Afghan government to deliver the most basic services, unsure about the length of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, or are simply resistant to any outside intervention. This is where “tactical patience” and determination are paramount. The first step is to build relationships based on trust, which is often a time-consuming endeavor. To their credit, SOF fully understand the challenges and are making steady progress. 

Ironically, Obama has now established a clear timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that will likely exacerbate the challenge of persuading village elders to support the local police program that he praised in his address. The operational challenge going forward concerns ISAF’s ability to create enough ALP units to offset ANSF security gaps before transition in 2014. Consider that in addition to creating new ALP units, perhaps a more pressing requirement is to maintain SOF and Afghan government support for those villages that have already established ALP units in order to prevent a “backslide” where these units are disbanded. Such a scenario risks the creation of U.S. SOF-trained militias that are now loyal to warlords or the highest bidder (a real concern for Karzai, given Afghanistan’s history), not to mention a Taliban strategic public relations “win.” All of this places an additional burden on the limited number of SOF forces in theater and will likely constrain the amount of VSO and ALP expansion that can be done over the course of the next few years without additional resources. 

What can be done? One consideration is to augment SOF forces with conventional forces for VSO and ALP operations. Petraeus has already done this on a limited basis, but the program could be expanded further. While this risks further reducing the number of conventional troops conducting other COIN operations (an important consideration given the president’s announcement), the strategic benefits of the ALP program — and the strategic risk associated with the program’s failure — make it a viable course of action. 

Another option is to make the ALP program permanent. Currently, the program is envisioned as a short-term fix (two to five years) until the ANSF have grown sufficiently to provide security across the country. However, given the questionable quality and effectiveness of many ANP units and the president’s plan for U.S. troop reductions, one can reasonably argue that the planned transition in 2014 will likely be inconsistent across the country – especially in the rural areas. Additionally, making the ALP a permanent organization within the MoI would reduce uncertainty about the program’s viability and make it easier for SOF forces to convince village elders to support the program.   

Ultimately, some difficult strategic decisions lie ahead for senior military leaders and planners as the planned U.S. troop reductions are implemented. There is now a clear race against time as 2014 approaches and many current initiatives and programs will have to be reassessed on a cost-benefit basis. The ALP program represents an opportunity to provide security to the rural areas and connect remote villages with the Afghan government – both are key components in any COIN strategy. As the Director of ALP, Brig Gen Ali Sha Ahmadzai, explained, “If the ALP succeeds, all of Afghanistan will succeed.”  

Jim Cook is a retired Army officer and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He recently returned from Afghanistan where he served on the staff for Regional Command – South. The views expressed in this article are his own.