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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Today in central Afghanistan, the latest graduates of a new neighborhood watch program assumed their duties. These men are called Guardians by their U.S. Special Forces mentors. Their target is the Taliban. The pilot program is similar to one in Iraq that turned local tribesmen against al-Qaida.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with the U.S. Special Forces - training the new Afghan force. She sent us this story from the province of Wardak.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Under a blazing sun here in Wardak provincial, capital of Maydan Shahr, the newest graduates of the Afghan Public Protection Force shuffle into a loose formation before their guests. They look like Cuban revolutionaries in their green uniforms, which were donated by the Chinese. The Afghans' shoes also raise a few eyebrows. Some wear sneakers, while others have loafers or combat boots.

But the less-than-polished appearance of these Guardians doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of the Afghan and American guests who've gathered here at the provincial government center to celebrate their return to Wardak after three weeks of training. The men are fed rice, beef and watermelon. A few of them take to a nearby basketball court to do some traditional Pashtun dancing.

JOHNNY UTAH: It's kind of like a coming- out party.

SARHADDI NELSON: That's a Special Forces commander who mentors this Afghan force. He asks that we call him Johnny Utah, a character from the movie "Point Break." Security concerns prohibit him from revealing his real name. Utah says this party the governor is throwing for the 80-some graduates gives them a chance to celebrate their new role as watchdogs against the Taliban here in Wardak. The province is a pipeline for militants seeking to attack Kabul.

UTAH: After this they'll go be put out at their six checkpoints, and they'll start providing security, which frees up the police to go do more roving patrols.

SARHADDI NELSON: They'll join more than 240 other public protection force members who began patrolling in the province two months ago.

Afghan and U.S. officials say the guardians are the first line of defense for their tribes against militants and criminals, but more importantly, they serve as the eyes and ears for the Afghan security forces and their American partners out here.

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

HAJI JANAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: 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 roadside bomb. Provincial council chair Haji Janan is one of many speakers this day who tell the elders more protection force members are needed.

UTAH: How's everything going tonight?

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: A few hours later, Utah visits the graduates during their first shift. It's pitch black at this checkpoint in the suburb of Familiah. Clutching his AK-47, checkpoint commander Sher Agha complains that his men don't even have a flashlight to shine on the militants who might happen their way.

SHER AGHA: (Through translator) Our first night here is tough. 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.

SARHADDI NELSON: Utah tells Sher Agha to call his commander and tell him about his problems. He also gives Sher Agha his flashlight to borrow until morning.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Maydan Shahr, Afghanistan.

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