By Emma Graham-Harrison
KABUL (Reuters) - A controversial scheme that pays and arms Afghans to defend their villages in areas with a strong insurgent presence is likely to be expanded and extended, a senior officer from the NATO-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan has said.
The Afghan Local Police (ALP) were a flagship project of General David Petraeus, who stepped down as commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan earlier this year, but have been criticized by human rights groups.
Petraeus described them as one of the most critical planks of a stepped-up push for security. They aim to use modest salaries and foreign mentors to build or formalize local protection networks in areas with little army or police presence.
Original plans called for up to 30,000 members, though only around 7,000 were in place by August.
The scheme, launched in 2010, was originally expected to last no more than five years, after which units would be demobilized or absorbed into the regular police.
But commanders from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consider them a key part of their success in loosening the Taliban's grip on areas like the southern Arghandab valley, once an insurgent stronghold.
And the coalition is now seriously considering making the groups a more lasting part of Afghanistan's security landscape.
"The scheme is likely to be expanded and extended," said a senior officer from the coalition. "It's under discussion but in some areas it is a really critical part of security."
Another NATO official, who also declined to be identified, confirmed that the coalition was discussing an expansion.
SECURITY OR TERROR?
The groups were formed in response to Afghanistan's downward security spiral, aiming to capitalize on a basic instinct to protect local communities -- much like Iraq's Awakening Council that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war.
This has worked in some areas, with locals citing improvements in security. But in others, criminals and insurgents are joining the ALP or government-backed militias, securing access to funds and guns, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year.
A lack of training, vetting, oversight and accountability means armed groups are adding another worry to the lives of ordinary Afghans already struggling with a war that this year has claimed a record number of civilian lives, the group warned.
Murder, torture, illegal taxes, theft and the gang rape of a teenage boy were among the abuses documented in the 102-page report, "Just Don't Call It a Militia."
It detailed the gang rape of a 13-year-old boy in northeastern Baghlan province by four ALP members, who abducted him in the street and took him to the home of a sub commander. No one has been arrested.
In another incident, the ALP were accused of beating teenage boys and hammering nails into the feet of one.
And in southern Uruzgan province, elders who refused to provide men for an ALP unit were detained and there have been reports of forcible collection of informal taxes.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)