KABUL: Afghanistan is considering training and arming 20,000 civilians to defend territories where Islamic militants have been driven out, officials say, sparking fears the local forces could become another thuggish militia.
The proposal for a government-backed armed group that would protect its own communities from the Taliban and the Islamic State group comes as Afghanistan's security forces, demoralised by killings and desertions, struggle to beat back a rampant insurgency.
But the proposal has raised concerns that the local forces could become unruly and turn into another abusive militia terrorising the people it is supposed to defend.
"The Afghan government's expansion of irregular forces could have enormously dangerous consequences for civilians," said Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based group said Western diplomats in Kabul familiar with the plan -- modelled on the Indian Territorial Army that supports the country's regular forces -- said Afghan officials had expressed concerns the militia could be used by "powerful strongmen" or become "dependent on local patronage networks".
American and Afghan officials told AFP the fighters would come under the command of the Afghan army and be better trained than the Afghan Local Police -- a village-level force set up by the United States in 2010 and accused of human rights violations.
"Right now we rely on commandos and air strikes to retake the lost territories but after the commandos leave we don't have enough forces to hold onto the territories," said a senior defence ministry official who asked not to be named.
"The force will operate under an army corps and will be used to fill the gaps. They will be recruited from the locals and will be numbered around 20,000."
Defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri confirmed to AFP that a plan for "local forces" was being discussed.
"People will be recruited from their areas because they know their regions and how to keep them," Waziri said, but added there was no guarantee it would be implemented.
A spokesman for NATO's Resolute Support train and assist mission also confirmed a proposal for an Afghan territorial army was on the table.
But another American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told AFP the idea was still in "the brainstorming phase".
The Afghan government and its foreign backers have been cultivating militias to bolster the 330,000-strong Afghan National Security and Defense Forces as they battle to get the upper hand in the grinding conflict.
In Afghanistan, militias -- private armies and government-backed armed groups -- have a long and chequered history in the war-torn country and many Afghans are wary of them.
Civilian casualties were at record highs in the first six months of 2017, a UN report showed, with forces loyal to the Afghan government accounting for nearly 20 percent of the deaths and injuries.