Marines Team Up With Afghan 'Neighborhood Watch'

  • Isutalah (left) and Mohammed Gul are part of a local defense force known as Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, or ISCI, in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Here, they take a break from patrolling with Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment during a joint operation with Afghan army soldiers in northern Marjah.
    Hide caption
    Isutalah (left) and Mohammed Gul are part of a local defense force known as Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, or ISCI, in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Here, they take a break from patrolling with Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment during a joint operation with Afghan army soldiers in northern Marjah.
    All photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A local farmer watches as Isutalah (center) patrols with the Marines. The ISCI forces are selected by tribal elders, paid $150 per month and given uniforms. The benefit, say Marine officers, is that they know the local people — and who is and is not a member of the Taliban.
    Hide caption
    A local farmer watches as Isutalah (center) patrols with the Marines. The ISCI forces are selected by tribal elders, paid $150 per month and given uniforms. The benefit, say Marine officers, is that they know the local people — and who is and is not a member of the Taliban.
  • Haji Gul Mawla was the first leader in northern Marjah to assemble an ISCI force. The Marines are counting on local tribal elders such as Gul Mawla to recruit Afghans to act as armed neighborhood watches.
    Hide caption
    Haji Gul Mawla was the first leader in northern Marjah to assemble an ISCI force. The Marines are counting on local tribal elders such as Gul Mawla to recruit Afghans to act as armed neighborhood watches.
  • A Marine from Camp Lejeune, N.C., looks at a crater left in the road by a homemade bomb in Marjah. The explosion killed two local men driving a truck. Marines say the local defense forces have helped in finding caches of IEDs.
    Hide caption
    A Marine from Camp Lejeune, N.C., looks at a crater left in the road by a homemade bomb in Marjah. The explosion killed two local men driving a truck. Marines say the local defense forces have helped in finding caches of IEDs.
  • Gul pauses to light a cigarette while patrolling with Marines during a joint operation with Afghan army soldiers.
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    Gul pauses to light a cigarette while patrolling with Marines during a joint operation with Afghan army soldiers.
  • Afghan children watch from a doorway as Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers search a compound in a new area of operation in Marjah.
    Hide caption
    Afghan children watch from a doorway as Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers search a compound in a new area of operation in Marjah.
  • Afghan soldiers search a man while on a patrol. Last year, Marjah was the site of a major U.S. military offensive to take back the area from Taliban fighters. However, pockets of Taliban remain.
    Hide caption
    Afghan soldiers search a man while on a patrol. Last year, Marjah was the site of a major U.S. military offensive to take back the area from Taliban fighters. However, pockets of Taliban remain.
  • Darryl St. George, a Navy corpsman with Weapons Company of the 2/8 Marines, stands with Afghan National Army soldiers while on patrol. As President Obama prepares to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there is a stepped-up effort to bolster Afghan forces, including the army and the Afghan Uniformed Police.
    Hide caption
    Darryl St. George, a Navy corpsman with Weapons Company of the 2/8 Marines, stands with Afghan National Army soldiers while on patrol. As President Obama prepares to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there is a stepped-up effort to bolster Afghan forces, including the army and the Afghan Uniformed Police.
  • Marines dump out a jug of poppy seeds discovered inside a farmhouse in Marjah. In nearly every compound, there are sacks of seeds or dried poppy stalks. The Marines say they've cut a deal with the elders: Don't grow poppy and we'll pay you to set up a local watch unit.
    Hide caption
    Marines dump out a jug of poppy seeds discovered inside a farmhouse in Marjah. In nearly every compound, there are sacks of seeds or dried poppy stalks. The Marines say they've cut a deal with the elders: Don't grow poppy and we'll pay you to set up a local watch unit.
  • A man looks out from behind the door of his compound as Marines stand outside and Afghan National Army soldiers search the inside for illegal weapons and bomb-making materials.
    Hide caption
    A man looks out from behind the door of his compound as Marines stand outside and Afghan National Army soldiers search the inside for illegal weapons and bomb-making materials.
  • Marines pause during a clearing operation with local security forces in a new and unchecked area of Marjah.
    Hide caption
    Marines pause during a clearing operation with local security forces in a new and unchecked area of Marjah.
  • A Marine catches the last moments of sleep before the sun rises over a temporary base nicknamed "Patrol Base Suc" in northern Marjah.
    Hide caption
    A Marine catches the last moments of sleep before the sun rises over a temporary base nicknamed "Patrol Base Suc" in northern Marjah.
  • Local children watch, fascinated, as an Afghan National Army soldier walks along a dirt embankment during a joint patrol with the 2/8 Marines. The soldiers stop and search all the locals who pass by, looking for weapons and illegal goods, mainly drugs.
    Hide caption
    Local children watch, fascinated, as an Afghan National Army soldier walks along a dirt embankment during a joint patrol with the 2/8 Marines. The soldiers stop and search all the locals who pass by, looking for weapons and illegal goods, mainly drugs.
  • Abdul Ghani, a member of the ISCI force, talks with the 2/8 Marines' Fox Company.
    Hide caption
    Abdul Ghani, a member of the ISCI force, talks with the 2/8 Marines' Fox Company.
  • Afghan National Army soldier Mohammed Sahdwer, known simply as "Rambo" to the Marines, stops to let his men catch up to him during a joint clearing operation.
    Hide caption
    Afghan National Army soldier Mohammed Sahdwer, known simply as "Rambo" to the Marines, stops to let his men catch up to him during a joint clearing operation.
  • An Afghan National Army soldier holds a security position in front of a local farmhouse during a joint patrol with the Marines.
    Hide caption
    An Afghan National Army soldier holds a security position in front of a local farmhouse during a joint patrol with the Marines.
  • A Marine walks along a mud wall while conducting a search and clearing operation as the dust from a wheat-thrashing machine falls like snow.
    Hide caption
    A Marine walks along a mud wall while conducting a search and clearing operation as the dust from a wheat-thrashing machine falls like snow.

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Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is in Washington this week. He's already met with President Obama, and the White House is debating how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

One factor in that decision: whether Afghans can take over the fight.

An area of Afghanistan that was the scene of major combat a year ago is now a test case for whether peace can hold in the country. North of the district of Marjah, in Helmand province, Marines are working with locals who know the area and know the enemy.

"It's basically like a neighborhood watch with guns," explains Marine Sgt. Jon Moulder.

The Local Advantage

If America ever finds something close to success in Afghanistan and is able to withdraw large numbers of troops, it may be because of the likes of Mohammed Gul and Isutalah.

The two men wear gray uniforms and man a small patrol base set along a dirt road as part of that local defense force, called Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, or ISCI.

The men who serve in the force are chosen by tribal elders, paid $150 per month and patrol with the Americans.

Isutalah explains through a translator how he helps the Americans: He can spot the Taliban. He's from this area, he says, so he knows things like who's a Talib and who's not. And he says there are a lot of Taliban in this area.

Isutalah of the Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure force on foot patrol in northern Marjah with Marines of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment. i i

Isutalah of the Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure force on foot patrol in northern Marjah with Marines of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Isutalah of the Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure force on foot patrol in northern Marjah with Marines of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment.

Isutalah of the Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure force on foot patrol in northern Marjah with Marines of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment.

David Gilkey/NPR

Moulder says the ISCI forces are a key partner because of that local knowledge.

One day out on patrol, Moulder and his squad crossed fields and met with local villagers. Isutalah and Mohammed Gul greeted their neighbors.

Moulder says the program has paid off: This area just to the north of Marjah — the center of the insurgency in Helmand province only a year ago — has been quiet for more than two months.

Moulder says that's because this local watch group passes on intelligence and isn't afraid to hunt down Taliban fighters.

"They're a lot more aggressive than the [Afghan National Army]. That's kind of their culture, though; that's kind of what they do," Moulder says.

Most young men around here don't want to join the National Army. Some don't trust the Karzai government; others don't want to serve away from home. So the top Marine commander here, Col. Dave Furness, says this local defense force helps fill a void.

"There's a huge appetite for local defense forces in Marjah," Furness says. "The elders like it. The locals like it because they can serve locally."

Furness says there are now some 400 men who've joined the local defense forces in Marjah, and he expects another 400 will sign up by the end of the summer.

Counting On Tribal Elders

To hit that number, the colonel will need some help, and the person the Americans are counting on is a local tribal elder named Haji Gul Mawla.

Map of Helmand Province

When Gul Mawla swept into a large plywood building at the Marine compound, sweets and drinks had been set aside for him and other elders. They went through the ritual greetings and then got down to business. That meant talking with the Marines about security and getting paid for the ISCI members they'd recruited.

Gul Mawla is a burly man with a thick gold watch. He fought against the Soviets two decades ago, as well as the Taliban. And he was the first in the area to set up an ISCI group back in February.

Mawla says he got tired of the Taliban. He says the advantage the ISCI forces have over the Afghan National Army and police force is that members are local and they can recognize the Taliban. The police and army are from different areas, he says.

Gul Mawla has paid a price for working with the Americans. His brother lost a leg to a roadside bomb, and he has escaped several assassination attempts. But he's pushing other local elders to join the effort. He says most of his friends promise him they will start ISCI forces — their own neighborhood watches. Hopefully, they will, he adds.

Fighting The Poppy Trade And Corruption

That would fit the nationwide effort by Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, to recruit thousands of local defense forces. It parallels a program called the Sons of Iraq, which Petraeus used to help turn around the insurgency when he was the top commander in that country.

But the Marines know that some of the tribal elders they are seeking out as allies bring some baggage. At the top of the list? Drugs.

A Marine with Weapons Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., dumps out a bag of poppy seeds discovered inside a farm house in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Poppy seeds are confiscated and destroyed when found during clearing operations. i i

A Marine with Weapons Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., dumps out a bag of poppy seeds discovered inside a farm house in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Poppy seeds are confiscated and destroyed when found during clearing operations. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
A Marine with Weapons Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., dumps out a bag of poppy seeds discovered inside a farm house in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Poppy seeds are confiscated and destroyed when found during clearing operations.

A Marine with Weapons Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., dumps out a bag of poppy seeds discovered inside a farm house in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Poppy seeds are confiscated and destroyed when found during clearing operations.

David Gilkey/NPR

Many elders here have grown wealthy through the illegal opium trade, which is centered in this part of Helmand province.

While on a patrol with the Marines, Afghan National Army Sgt. Mohammed Sahdwer dumped sacks of poppy seeds into the strong wind.

"No good, poppy. Poppy no good," Sahdwer remarked.

In nearly every house inspected on that patrol, there were signs of the drug trade: sacks of seeds or dried poppy stalks.

The Marines say they've cut a deal with the elders: Don't grow poppy and we'll pay you to set up a local watch unit.

So drugs are one problem; another is corruption. Sgt. Omar, an Afghan soldier critical of the local ISCI forces, says they only want one thing: money. He says there are reports that some ISCI are shaking down local farmers for protection money. If they don't pay, they're accused of being Taliban.

One Marine officer confirmed there has been extortion by ISCI forces but said that when it happens, the Marines move to stop it.

Like so much here in Afghanistan, problems like drugs and corruption have to be balanced against fighting the Taliban.

Sgt. Thomas Whorl, who works with ISCI units, brushes aside the complaints. He says the local defense forces have helped against the greatest threat here: roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

"They found a lot of IED caches that we probably never would have found," Whorl says. "Four times they came in with a whole trunkload full of IEDs, or IED materials or weapons. ... So they're very proactive in the area with keeping security, talking to the elders, you know — gaining that foothold in keeping it."

Most Marines interviewed in northern Marjah agree with the sergeant. They say the ISCI program makes the area safer.

A Missed Connection

Still, with all the Afghan security forces here, there are frustrations: everything from petty corruption and drug use to desertion — or simply not keeping an appointment.

One afternoon this month, the ISCI forces were supposed to show up at a remote American patrol base to go out with a squad of Marines. The Afghans never showed.

So Sgt. Jake Powell pushed his patrol to go to them.

The Marines sloshed across flooded fields, with mud and water over their boots. They hopped over narrow canals to reach the ISCI base, a disheveled compound. A shirtless man washing himself by a canal said his commander and most of his men had gone to another American base for training. There would be no patrol today.

Powell was frustrated.

"Next time that we have something planned and you can't come, you need to call us over the radios that we gave you or have your cellphones on and let us know that you can't make it," he told the man.

With that, Powell assembled his Marines and headed back out to cross the fields and canals — without his armed neighborhood watch.

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