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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This Wednesday, President Obama will outline his plans for reducing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. The White House has been debating the numbers for months, and one key factor is whether Afghans can take over the fight.

SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan, north of a district called Marjah. That was the scene of major combat a year ago, and now it's a test for whether peace can hold without U.S. troops.

Tom has been on patrol with a new local Afghan force, and he sent this report.

Sergeant JOHN MOULDER (United States Marine Corps): Hey. Is the commander here?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: 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 these two men. Their names are Isutalah and Mohammed Gul. They wear gray uniforms and man a small patrol base set along a dirt road. They're part of a local defense force called ISCI. That stands for Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, that's why everyone here calls it ISCI for short.

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

ISUTALAH: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: Isutalah explains through a translator how he helps the Americans. He can spot the Taliban.

ISUTALAH: (Foreign language spoken) I'm from this area. I know all the things like, here's a Talib, he's a Talib or not.

Unidentified Man #2: He said there's a lot of Taliban in this area. Yes.

BOWMAN: Marine Sergeant John Moulder says the ISCI are a key partner because of that local knowledge.

Sgt. MOULDER: It feels like a neighborhood watch with guns, which is awesome.

Hey, how is it going?

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

ISUTULAH: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: On the day we went out with them on patrol, Sergeant Moulder and his squad crossed fields, met with local villagers. The two members of the ISCI force, Isutalah and Mohammed Gul, greeted their neighbors.

Sergeant 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.

Sgt. MOULDER: They're a lot more aggressive than the ANA are. That's kind of their culture, though. That's kind of what they do.

BOWMAN: The ANA, the Afghan National Army. 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, Colonel Dave Furness, says this local defense force helps fill a void.

Colonel DAVE FURNESS (Commander, Regional Command Southwest): There's a huge appetite for local defense forces in Marjah. The elders like it. The locals like it because they can serve locally.

BOWMAN: Colonel 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. To hit that number, the colonel will need some help. And the person the Americans are counting on is a local tribal elder.

HAJI GUL MAWLA: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: His name is Haji Gul Mawla. We met Gul Mawla when he swept into a large plywood building at the Marine compound. Sweets and drinks were 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 and more recently against the Taliban. And he was the first in the area to set up an ISCI group back in February.

GUL MAWLA: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: We got tired of Taliban, he said. In this case, I stand up ISCI to fight them.

BOWMAN: But you have the Army and the police force. Can't they fight the Taliban? Why do you need the ISCI?

GUL MAWLA: (Through Translator) The ISCIs are from here. They can recognize the Talibans. The police and army, they are not from here. They are from different areas.

BOWMAN: 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.

GUL MAWLA: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: He said most of my friends, they promised me that they will stand up ISCI. But he said, I'm not naming them. Just hopefully, he said, they will stand up ISCI.

BOWMAN: Stand up ISCI, he said, meaning the other elders will create their own neighborhood watches.

That would fit the nationwide effort by General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, to recruit thousands of local defense forces. And 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. Top of the list: drugs. Many elders have grown wealthy through the illegal opium trade, which is centered in this part of Helmand province.

Sergeant MOHAMMED SAHDWER: Poppies.

Sgt. MOULDER: Yeah.

Sgt. SAHDWER: That's a lot.

Sgt. SAHDWER: No good, poppy. Poppy, no good.

BOWMAN: That was Afghan Sergeant Mohammed Sahdwer. He was dumping sacks of poppy seeds into the strong wind while on a patrol with the Marines. In nearly every house we inspected on that patrol, there were signs of a 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, that's one problem; another is corruption.

Sergeant Omar is an Afghan soldier critical of the local ISCI forces. He says they only want one thing.

Sergeant OMAR: Money.

BOWMAN: Money. He said there are reports some ISCI are shaking down local farmers for protection money. If they don't pay, they're accused of being Taliban.

Sgt. OMAR: Money, no? You're Talib. You're Talib.

BOWMAN: One Marine officer confirmed there has been extortion by ISCI forces, but when that 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.

Sergeant Thomas Whorl works with ISCI units. He brushes aside the complaints. He says the local defense forces have helped against the greatest threat here: roadside bombs known as IEDs.

Sergeant THOMAS WHORL (United States Marine Corps): They found a lot of IED caches that we probably never would have found. There's probably been about four times they came in with a whole trunk-load full of IEDs or IED materials or weapons or what have you. So they're very proactive in the area with keeping security, talking to the elders, you know, gaining that foothold and keeping it.

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

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 were supposed to show up at a remote American patrol base to go out with a squad of Marines. The Afghans never showed, so Sergeant Jake Powell pushed his patrol to go to them.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BOWMAN: The Marines sloshed across flooded fields, the 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 says his commander and most of his men have gone to another American base for training. There'll be no patrol today. Sergeant Powell is frustrated.

Sergeant JAKE POWELL (United States Marine Corps): 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 cell phones on and let us know that you can't make it.

BOWMAN: With that, Sergeant Powell assembles his Marines and heads back to cross those fields and canals without his armed neighborhood watch.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

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