By Nick Paton Walsh reporting from Kabul
The head of the U.S. special forces has revealed a likely controversial plan to triple the number of armed Afghans paid by NATO to protect their villages under a plan once described as "a community watch with AK-47s".
In a rare meeting with journalists Saturday, Adm. William H McRaven, the architect of the daring U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said the plan could go into effect over the next two years.
The number of Afghan Local Police, or ALP, could go up from 9,800 to 30,000, if the Afghan government supports it.
American commanders consider the groups a local and cost-effective solution to shoring up security in Afghanistan's sprawling and lawless rural communities. They were active in 57 districts now, but could cover 99 by the end of 2013.
"The real advantage for the ALP and what it provides you as opposed to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is the ability for Afghans from their local districts to protect their own homes," he said. "The ALP allow guys to stay at home and protect their families and their villages."
The ALP created "a network out there that can respond to any potential threats," he said.
Former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, first introduced the plan 17 months ago, describing it to the U.S. Congress as "a community watch with AK-47s."
But Human Rights Watch accused the groups of "committing serious human rights abuses" and not being held accountable by the Afghan government.
These reports have raised fears that the armed groups might turn on the communities they protect or neighbor, particularly if their coalition wages falter after the NATO drawdown.
There are also concerns they could enter into rivalries with neighboring groups, instead worsening security for local Afghans. McRaven said he had only heard anecdotal talk of these groups fueling local tribal rivalries, but has not seen evidence on the ground to support that.
Col. John Evans, deputy commanding officer of Combined Forces Special Operations, said at 30,000 in number, the groups would cost an estimated $170 million to maintain annually, making them significantly cheaper than the police or army as an Afghan method of providing security locally.
While he said the ALP could not provide all the same skills as the police and army, he added: "There is an economy aspect for the ALP for a government of Afghanistan that is going to continue have to meet financial commitments as a young democracy. It does give them some options."
Evans added that basic training and local accountability were in place to keep the ALP in order. "There are several check and balances: a vetting at the local level by the Shuras", or groups of village elders.
"It allows for people to say that a man would be a good guardian for them as they have known them all their lives. And secondly if this young man turns out not to be an honest man now he is accountable to that village elder as that's how the culture works."
Evans added the ALP were under the remit of the Afghan Ministry of Interior and answerable to local police chiefs.
A highly-decorated Navy SEAL and experienced terrorist hunter, McRaven was also the architect of the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. He declined to discuss that operation.
McRaven defended NATO's controversial tactic of night raids in Afghanistan, which have become a sticking point in negotiations over the US's long term military presence in the country. He said there have been 2,800 raids on insurgents in the country in the past year alone, only 15% of which fired a shot.
McRaven added that of all the casualties caused by coalition special forces raids, only 1% were civilians killed in error. The intrusive nature of the raids, and the civilian deaths they cause, have made them deeply unpopular in the nation. President Hamid Karzai has frequently demanded that they stop.
"I think you would find that night raids are very valuable when you are trying to get somebody who is trying to hide," McRaven said. "It's an important piece of security and I think we have to continue to have this discussion with the Afghans. I'm not sure I know if it's essential but I know that it's important."
On special forces raids in general in Afghanistan, McRaven said: "There's not a guy in uniform who doesn't realize that we can't kill our way to success here. Statistically of the raids that we do, in generally 85% of them we never fire a shot. That always surprises folks. In a 12 month period - and this is a number you can take to the bank - in a 12 month period of time we conducted about 2,800 raids in Afghanistan.
He said the civilian casualties were less than 1%.
"The number of times we engaged was about 15%. In any conflict those are pretty good numbers. The Afghan (commandos partnering the US forces] are always in the lead. A common mission of for the guys is they will helicopter into an area and the Afghans will get on bullhorns and they will say "please come out we are coalition forces."
Previous reports have suggested raids happen on average 10 times a night, but sometimes as often as 40. McRaven's remarks lower that average slightly, but still provide an official confirmation of how common such operations have become.
McRaven said moves are under way to ensure that future night raids are led by Afghan commandos, a possible compromise in the face of complaints here from the presidency. McRaven insisted elements of the Afghan government were in favor of raids.
McRaven also addressed the changing nature of the insurgency after a decade of war in Afghanistan. An operations officer with his team said that since the bin Laden raid and other operations, al Qaeda's "relevance in Afghanistan is becoming less and less. Their leadership has been impacted significantly. Each time they try and put somebody up there, we take them down. That has really put a hurt on al Qaeda."
Afghan insurgents "see al Qaeda more as a liability now. They [the Afghan Taliban] see it was a mistake to ever partner with" al Qaeda, he said.
McRaven added the Haqqani network - a sophisticated part of the insurgency considered responsible for various raids into Kabul and believed to have significant Pakistani military support - were tough fighters who are well-supplied.
But he added the network was not entirely dependent on Pakistani support.
"I think the Haqqanis are fairly autonomous. That's not to say that support that they get living in Pakistan certainly makes them more difficult for us to get at. They have been around for quite some time. So they have developed a pretty extensive network in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. I don't think they would go away quickly regardless who went after them."
He added, after a month in which a border clash that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has taken relations between Islamabad and Washington to a new low, that Pakistan was "an important part of the solution here. while we've had some difficult times here the Pakistanis are still open to dialogue on different levels."