KHAR NIKAH, Afghanistan — Inside a cold room surrounded by sand-filled Hesco barriers in the remote Gereshk Valley, British forces are teaching a group of young Afghan fighters how to protect their village from the Taliban.
But preparing a group of angry, illiterate Afghans to fight a deadly enemy that is regularly testing the British forces here in northern Helmand Province is a monumental task. The villagers who have opted to join the Afghan Local Police force in Khar Nikah mistrust one another, say they are not being offered much pay and complain that they need better weapons.
“They expect us to guard a checkpoint with an AK-47,” said Mir Hamza, holding a rusty Kalashnikov as he rubbed the magazine with his shawl. “Even sheep herders carry Kalashnikovs in Khar Nikah.”
As the British forces prepare to hand over checkpoints in the area surrounding their base here, improving the morale and performance of the Afghan Local Police recruits will be a critical challenge.
Local defense programs have become a vital part of military strategy in Afghanistan. The programs began after an incident in summer 2010 when dozens of rifle-toting farmers from Gizab, a strategically important area in Kandahar, drove the Taliban from their village. Following that successful local uprising, the United States was keen to replicate the model for village defense, and the United States has since sent in troops to train local villagers.
The Afghan Local Police, or ALP, is expected to serve as a defensive presence, manning security checkpoints to keep insurgents from gaining ground. Coalition forces hope that this in turn allows the Afghan National Police, a force that receives more extensive training, to go out on patrols and conduct offensive raids.
Some 8,000 Afghan villagers have been recruited into the ALP program, which is formally run by the Afghan Interior Ministry. The local police force is expected to reach 30,000, a goal that the United States and its partners are aggressively pushing.
Although the American plan to create the ALP initially met sharp resistance from President Hamid Karzai, who feared growing warlordism, he later gave the program his blessing. In theory, every recruit for the ALP is vetted by the country’s intelligence service, and the local commanders have to answer to the district police chiefs.
But two years since the ALP’s creation, the program has hit some significant turbulence. The U.S. military has acknowledged human rights abuses by the ALP, and the program has been beset by internal strife.
In districts where the Taliban still put up a fight, the British are having a hard time persuading local residents to join the local police force. In Khar Nikah, the British had hoped to recruit and train about 60 ALP members by the end of last year. So far, there are 26.
Although NATO poured resources into Helmand and the United States launched a major offensive here three years ago, insurgents are still active in the province. Khar Nikah is crucial to NATO because of its proximity to Gereshk, a town that lies at the heart of one of Afghanistan’s most important trade routes, and because of its connection with Route 611, which runs up to the Kajaki dam, a major hydropower project.
“Our biggest challenge is doing things the Afghan way,” said Maj. Spiro Markandonatos, the commanding officer of British forces at the forward operating base in Khar Nikah. “The hierarchical system in the village community doesn’t really allow our methods and process to work.”
Markandonatos’s frustration in the local system grew stronger after repeated disagreements with the ALP commander, Atahullah, who rose to power because his father was a key leader in the village. A few days after Christmas last year, Atahullah, who like many Afghans goes only by one name, resigned following a disagreement over $75. Four other members of the local police resigned the same day.
Atahullah’s father later expressed concern that members of the ALP, including his son, felt that too much was being asked of them while little was being offered to the village. “Other villages have schools, roads and clinics, and we have been saying this again and again, but we don’t have anything here,” said the father, Haji Kader Khan. But the British said the Taliban had been threatening to kill Atahullah, which also played a role in his resignation.
Members of the local police force do not wear their uniform when they are on patrol, something that the British see less as a discipline problem and more as a security risk because it makes it hard to distinguish the insurgents from the police.
“Until one of them gets shot . . . they are not going to learn their lesson,” said a frustrated Capt. Badri Rai, who heads a team that recruits and mentors ALP in Khar Nikah.
Mistrust among villagers and within the ALP has damaged British efforts to efficiently train and recruit more police by early spring. A Taliban commander was recently heard over an intercom asking an ALP member to turn his weapons against the Western forces.
“Some of the villagers in ALP are 90 percent Taliban and 10 percent farmers. Do not let these guys inside the checkpoint compound,” said Rifleman Subash Gurung of the British army.
But there are some young men in the ALP who give the British reason for hope. One of them is an ethnically Pashtun man known only as Torzan who stands 5 feet tall and is referred to as the “Lion of the Green Zone.” After his brother was killed in an insurgent attack and his son was kidnapped by the Taliban, Torzan decided to pick up an AK-47 and side with the British forces in the area.
Torzan said the Taliban has spread word among the locals that the British forces are leaving soon and that the ALP will have to bear the brunt of the battle once the foreigners are gone.
That worries prospective recruits in the area, including the newly elected ALP commander, Khalifa Atullah, a charismatic man who once fought against the Russians. Atullah said he understands that the British are hoping to hand over several checkpoints and patrol bases to his men. But he said his men still need more help to do what is asked of them.
Atullah’s men receive from the British a uniform, an AK-47, a box of 7.62 mm rounds and the mandate to fight the Taliban to protect their village. But he said that is not enough.
“We need sleeping bags, blankets, and we need heavy weapons,” he said.
British soldiers say they cannot trust the ALP with heavy-duty weaponry. Late last year, members of the ALP were implicated in killings, rapes, arbitrary detentions and land grabs by Human Rights Watch.
But a British political officer in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah said the ALP remains a “manageable risk.”
“We can maintain a bar and say anything beyond that is unacceptable, but we can’t enforce our rules onto them,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is their country and they have to run it in their own way.”