KABUL (Reuters) -- While U.S. forces prepare to send up to 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, behind the scenes Afghan government officials are working to engage tribal elders as a way of undermining the growing influence of Taliban insurgents.
Engaging with leaders in rural areas of Afghanistan is part of a new NATO and U.S. strategy in Afghanistan; to promote traditional methods of local rule and undercut the lawlessness that feeds in the strengthening Taliban insurgency.
"The only way you can bring peace and stability to this country is to revive the traditional rule of people within the community in governance and security," Barna Karimi, deputy minister for policy at the Interdependent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), said.
The IDLG is an Afghan government department that leads community outreach to elders in rural areas of Afghanistan where their word is respected and often determines local law.
Using shuras -- meetings of tribal leaders -- the IDLG wants power brokers in remote areas to cherry-pick civilians for jobs in the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
"This shura will sign a memorandum of understanding on how the government should work and how the community should help the government not to shelter insurgents in their houses, not to feed them, not to house them, not to help them," Karimi said.
The commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. General David McKiernan, recommended the plan in Washington last month as a way of improving government effectiveness at a local level in a country that has little history of central rule.
"What they are talking about is empowering local militias and what they are focused on is money, development, training and governance," said a Brussels-based NATO diplomat.
The plan is one plank of the "clear, hold and build" strategy that General David Petraeus employed with success in Iraq and now as overall commander of Afghanistan is likely to recommend to President-elect Barack Obama in a forthcoming strategic review.
McKiernan spoke of providing the local shuras with "the wherewithal, the authority, and some resources" to help provide security, but said the plan was different to the so-called Awakening Councils, that turned their guns on Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
By helping to provide security at a local level, the shuras could take some of the pressure off Afghan forces while the U.S. military works on nearly doubling the Afghan army to some 134,000 and reforming the notoriously corrupt police.
The plan is to be implemented first of all on a trial basis, focusing on areas along the key highway from the capital Kabul to Kandahar, the main city in the south, NATO officials said.
But McKiernan, like other officials, has avoided talk of arming militias, an idea fraught with problems in Afghanistan, where long-standing, complex ethnic, tribal, and local rivalries often pit one village, valley, tribe, or region against another.
"There's a lot of interfighting and internal disagreements between local tribes," Afghan parliament deputy Shukria Barakzai told Reuters. "They will start to abuse the same weapons they are responsible for.... It's a big threat to the community."
The extent to which the local shuras would be allowed to arm their communities is currently being debated by the Afghan government and the NATO-led force.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this week that arming militias would be a "disaster."
"Getting weapons in Afghanistan is not a problem, everybody is armed," the Brussels-based NATO diplomat said.
"I've not heard about anyone talking about giving them weapons and a lot of people talking about not giving them weapons," the diplomat said.