New Afghan Force Joins Fight Against Taliban

Afghan Public Protection forces marching i i

hide captionAfghan Public Protection forces march out of a tent after a reception in their honor in Maydan Shahr, in Afghanistan's Wardak province, on Thursday. The 83 graduates of a three-week training course joined 243 others in helping secure their own communities.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR
Afghan Public Protection forces marching

Afghan Public Protection forces march out of a tent after a reception in their honor in Maydan Shahr, in Afghanistan's Wardak province, on Thursday. The 83 graduates of a three-week training course joined 243 others in helping secure their own communities.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR
New graduates of an Afghan protection force i i

hide captionSamir, who like many Afghans uses only one name, sits with his Afghan Public Protection squad in a pickup truck after a reception Thursday for the new graduates of a community security program in Maydan Shahr, in Afghanistan's Wardak province.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR
New graduates of an Afghan protection force

Samir, who like many Afghans uses only one name, sits with his Afghan Public Protection squad in a pickup truck after a reception Thursday for the new graduates of a community security program in Maydan Shahr, in Afghanistan's Wardak province.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR
A U.S. Special Forces operative takes photographs of new graduates. i i

hide captionA U.S. Special Forces operative takes photographs of newly graduated Afghan Public Protection forces, known as Guardians, while another records each name, at the squad's checkpoint in Afghanistan's Wardak province on Thursday.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR
A U.S. Special Forces operative takes photographs of new graduates.

A U.S. Special Forces operative takes photographs of newly graduated Afghan Public Protection forces, known as Guardians, while another records each name, at the squad's checkpoint in Afghanistan's Wardak province on Thursday.

Holly Pickett/Atlas Press for NPR

In central Afghanistan, the latest graduates of a new security program targeting the Taliban assumed their duties Thursday on the outskirts of Kabul.

The "Guardians," as the Afghan force is called by its U.S. Special Forces mentors, are part of the pilot Afghan Public Protection Program that American and Afghan officials hope to re-create across Afghanistan.

The program is similar to the U.S.-backed "Sons of Iraq" movement that turned local tribesmen against al-Qaida in Iraq.

In Maydan Shahr, capital city of Afghanistan's Wardak province, the newest graduates of the Afghan force shuffled into a loose formation before their guests. They resembled Cuban revolutionaries in their green uniforms, which were donated by the Chinese. Some wore sneakers, while others had loafers or combat boots.

But the less-than-polished appearance of these Guardians did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Afghan and American guests who gathered at the provincial government center to celebrate their return to Wardak after three weeks of U.S.-led training.

A Coming-Out Party

The force of about 80 Afghan recruits was fed rice, beef and watermelon. A few of them took to a nearby basketball court to do some traditional tribal Pashtun dancing.

"It's kind of like a coming-out party," said the U.S. Special Forces commander who mentors the Afghan force. Security concerns prohibit him from revealing his real name, so he asked to be called Johnny Utah, a character from the movie Point Break.

The U.S. commander says the party for the graduates gave them a chance to celebrate their new role as watchdogs against the Taliban in Wardak. The province is a pipeline for militants seeking to attack Kabul.

"After this, they'll go be put out at their six checkpoints, and they'll start providing security, which will free the police up to do more roving patrols," the U.S. commander said.

They will join more than 240 other public protection force members who began patrolling in the province two months ago.

Manning Checkpoints, Gathering Intelligence

Afghan and U.S. officials say the Guardians are the first line of defense for their tribes against militants and criminals. But more important, they serve as the eyes and ears for the Afghan security forces and their American partners.

The Special Forces mentors insist the force is not a militia, as critics contend. They point out that the Guardians are trained by and answer to the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, which also runs Afghanistan's police force.

But persuading local tribal leaders to offer up young men to join has not been easy in some parts of the province, especially after three public protection force members were killed last month by a remote-controlled roadside bomb.

Provincial council chairman Haji Janan was one of many speakers this day who told the elders more protection force members are needed.

Hours later, the men were deployed to their checkpoints for their first shift.

In the pitch black night at a checkpoint in the suburb of Familiah, commander Sher Agha complained that his men don't even have a flashlight to shine on militants who might happen their way.

"Our first night here is tough," he said, speaking in Dari and clutching his AK-47 assault rifle. "The government needs to make sure we at this checkpoint are better equipped. We can't even see if someone coming is friend or foe."

The American commander known as Johnny Utah told Sher Agha to call his commander and tell him about his problems. He also gave the Afghan officer his flashlight to borrow until morning.

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