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US Ambassador Backs Afghan Tribal 'Empowerment' Program

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said Washington is backing a controversial plan to engage tribal leaders in the fight against Taliban militants.

In an end-of-year news conference, Ambassador William Wood said the Afghan government's "community guards program" is aimed at strengthening and empowering tribes and villages to defend themselves against insurgents. He said there are not enough international troops or Afghan security forces to protect every village.

Wood repeatedly denied allegations that the United States is planning to arm the tribes. He said local community-chosen tribesmen will be given training, uniforms and other aid, but not weapons.

Critics fear the tribal program will re-create the tribal militias that wreaked so much havoc in Afghanistan during and after the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

The ambassador also said Afghanistan has made progress in fighting cultivation of opium poppies during 2008, reducing the land devoted to the crop by 20 percent.

But Wood said violence also rose in the past year. He said roadside bombings have doubled in 2008, but he denied that the roughly 2,000 bomb attacks have done anything to help the insurgents' cause.

He said the devices do not gain the militants any territory or "win any friends."