Ragtag Force of Afghan Farmers, Students Try to Keep Taliban at Bay

On a wind-swept hill at the foot of snowcapped mountains, a ragtag force of farmers, students and other unemployed men snapped to attention, their guns slung across the shoulders, their new black boots shining.

After three weeks of training, the newest security experiment to protect Afghanistan's countryside from Taliban fighters was on display for this village in central Afghanistan's Wardak province.

Among the 243 newly trained security guards in the U.S.-funded project was Zekeria, a tall, skinny man with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard who had 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 this valley — a known insurgent playground.

One critic calls the unit a "state-sponsored militia" that could potentially exacerbate the security situation.

The experimental force is the latest in a long list of attempts by the American and Afghan officials to raise the numbers of pro-government forces, deny insurgents sanctuary in far-flung villages and valleys, while trying to force the communities to choose sides in the increasingly violent conflict.

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

The concept behind this community-based force is similar to the one the American military employed in Iraq among Sunni tribesmen, when the formation of militias in key areas of the country helped turn the tide in that war and contributed to a dramatic reduction in violence.

Critics question the wisdom of handing out weapons to Afghans when the government and U.N. have been trying to reduce the number of arms in the country. They fear the plan could stoke rivalries between ethnic groups with a bloody past.

But during an induction ceremony behind dirt-filled protective barriers this week and under a colorful canopy protecting the valley elders from the sun, the focus was on explaining what this new unit was 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 noted the guards serve under the Interior Ministry and are responsible to the central government.

Militias are infamous in Afghanistan for their role in a devastating civil war that followed the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, and officials involved with setting up the new force go to great lengths to explain why the new unit is not a "tribal militia," but rather an inclusive force, where all ethnic groups are represented.

"Whatever you call them, these are local armed groups that have limited training, minimal command and control arrangements, so therefore for all intents and purposes they look like a state-sponsored militia," 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," Waldman said.

Those joining the force were chosen by the district elders and screened by Afghan security services to make sure no criminals, drug users or insurgents find their way in, officials said.

"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, which was attended by dozens of American and French military officers who mingled with hundreds of Afghan villagers.

That might be a tall order of business for such a disparate group of men consisting of beardless youths and old farmers who receive three weeks of training covering 15 subjects, including definition of the enemy, human rights and discipline.

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 on the capital's gates.

Thousands of U.S. troops have poured into Wardak province this year. Their heavy armor — and the might that comes with it — was on full display this week, as the commanders and soldiers made their way to the ceremony Tuesday, kicking up huge plumes of dust while traveling through the valley. Two Apache attack helicopters circled overhead.

At a time when President Barack Obama has rolled out a new Afghan strategy, in which strengthening of the local security forces is considered one of the crucial elements in trying to reverse the Taliban gains of the past three years, the way this force performs might provide at least a partial answer for the fight against insurgents.

There are only 1,200 regular Afghan security forces to protect half a million people in Wardak province, and relying on such community-based units appears to be a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

The Taliban will likely target this new force as the spring weather melts the snowy mountain passes, clearing the road for militants to come back for another fighting season, said Lt. Col. Ron Johnson, an American Army officer involved in the project.

From the start, small units of U.S. Special Forces will be mentoring and shadowing them.

American officers involved acknowledge that some of those carrying government-issued machine guns used to be insurgent foot soldiers, but that does not immediately disqualify them from service.

Sayed Jamshid, 20, left school in the ninth grade. His family is poor and the $120 monthly salary was appealing. His father told him he will be joining the new force.

"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 from Jalrez who this year did not plant his fields for lack of seeds, said he welcomed the new force, but it is poverty, rather than the insurgency, that is his biggest concern.

"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."