“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.