- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

JALREZ VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN (AP) - On a wind-swept hill at the foot of snowcapped mountains, a ragtag collection of farmers, students and other unemployed men snapped to attention, rifles slung across their shoulders, new black boots shining.

After three weeks of training, the newest U.S.-funded experiment in protecting the countryside from Taliban insurgents was on display this week for this village in central Afghanistan’s Wardak province. Dozens of American and French military officers mingled with hundreds of Afghans who came to watch.

Among the 243 security guards was Zekeria, a tall, skinny man with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard who has only one finger on his right hand _ the trigger finger. For the job he has signed up to do, that might be enough.

Zekeria and his fellow guards wear olive-green uniforms and are called the Afghan Public Protection Force. Their members come almost exclusively from the Jalrez Valley _ a known haunt of insurgents.

Some aid workers question the force’s short training. They also express concern that the unit could exacerbate the security situation, worrying it could become a player in longtime tribal feuds or be infiltrated by Taliban operatives.

Afghan officials counter that the force’s members have been drawn from a cross-section of the valley’s people and that all recruits were screened.

The experimental force is the latest in a long list of attempts by American and Afghan officials to bolster pro-government forces and deny insurgents sanctuary in rural areas while trying to force communities to choose sides in the increasingly violent conflict.

More guards units are planned for other districts in Wardak in coming months.

The concept behind the community-based force is similar to the effort by the American military in Iraq to form alliances with Sunni Arab tribesmen. The Sunni militias helped turn the tide in Iraq, contributing to a dramatic reduction in violence, but frictions have grown with the Shiite-led government and there have been clashes in recent weeks.

During this week’s induction ceremony behind dirt-filled protective barriers and under a colorful canopy protecting valley elders from the sun, the focus was on explaining what the new Afghan unit is not.

This “is not a militia, it is not a semi-militia,” said Wardak’s governor, Halim Fidai. “It is entirely a recognized, formal, well-equipped and trained” force. He said the guards serve under the Interior Ministry and are responsible to the central government.

Militias are infamous in Afghanistan for their role in the devastating civil war that followed the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989. Officials go to great lengths to stress the new unit is an inclusive force, with all ethnic groups represented.

That isn’t enough for critics, who are concerned that the group of beardless youths and old farmers received just three weeks of training.

“Whatever you call them, these are local armed groups that have limited training, minimal command and control arrangements,” said Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam International, a British-based aid group.

“There is a real risk of infiltration, co-option and subversion by militant or criminal groups,” he added.

Afghan officials say the guards were chosen by district elders and screened by Afghan security services to make sure no insurgents, criminals or drug users got in.

“It is a responsible force that will protect and guard schools, clinics, highways, mosques and governmental projects in addition to protecting the people,” Fidai said after the ceremony.

That might be a tall order.

Bordering Kabul, Wardak province hit the headlines last year after militants started attacking military convoys, hitting American helicopters patrolling its narrow valleys and creating an impression that the Taliban was at the capital’s gates.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers have poured into Wardak this year. Their heavy armor was on full display for the ceremony as American troops kicked up huge plumes of dust traveling through the valley. Two Apache attack helicopters circled overhead.

But there are only 1,200 regular Afghan police and soldiers to protect the half million people in Wardak province, and the new community-based guard units could be at least a partial answer to the resurgence of the Taliban. They also fall within President Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy of putting new emphasis on strengthening local forces.

The Taliban will likely target the new force as the spring thaw clears snowy mountain passes, making it easier for militants to operate, said Lt. Col. Ron Johnson, a U.S. Army officer involved in the guards project.

Small units of U.S. Special Forces soldiers will mentor and shadow the new force.

American officers acknowledged that some of the men now carrying government-issued machine guns used to be insurgents but said that does not disqualify them from service.

Sayed Jamshid, 20, left school in the ninth grade. His family is poor and the $120 monthly salary made it appealing to join.

“I want to make my country secure,” the skinny Jamshid said after the ceremony, before a lunch of rice and meat served for guests. “But I am also scared.”

Akbar Agha, a 35-year-old farmer watching the ceremony, welcomes the new force. But he said poverty, not the insurgency, is his biggest worry.

“I don’t have money to buy seeds. I do not have money to buy anything to grow,” Agha said. “Please encourage organizations who finance the government to fund the agriculture sector.”

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