MARJAH, Afghanistan — Maj. Mubarak Shah strode confidently into the U.S. Marine combat center with important intelligence: Three Taliban fighters were preparing to attack a nearby checkpoint.
The tall, lanky Afghan police commander, part of Afghanistan's new elite police force, pointed out the Taliban ambush spot on a wall-sized satellite map at Combat Outpost Turbett as his men and a team of Marines prepared for a fight.
When the Afghan police officers suited up and led the way through the busy Marjah market, however, they immediately threw the patrol a confusing curve.
"We're heading in the opposite direction of what Maj. Mubarak pointed out on the map," said Tim Coderre, a veteran sheriff's deputy from Wilmington, N.C., and former Army sniper who's working as a law enforcement adviser with the Marines.
Shah had identified the wrong spot on the map, and his officers now were leading the team to the right place. However, the suspected Taliban fighters had quietly disappeared back into the surrounding fields long before the quick response team arrived to check out the report.
Shah's police force, a relatively new creation that's akin to the U.S. National Guard, the French gendarmerie or the Italian carabinieri, is a work in progress, and how it performs in Marjah is pivotal for American plans to transform this opium heartland into a tranquil breadbasket.
The U.S. and its allies in the international military force are hoping that the Afghan National Civil Order Police will be a model for the much-disparaged Afghan National Police force, which the United States and its allies have been struggling to rebuild for more than seven years at a cost that now exceeds $6 billion.
ANCOP shows "what the potential might be," Royal Marines Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger, the top British military spokesman on Afghanistan, said earlier this week at a briefing in Washington.
While ANCOP may be able to set an example, there are fewer than 4,000 of them, a tiny percentage of the Afghan National Police.
ANCOP also has a higher turnover rate than the Afghan National Police does, in part because better-paying private contractors often scoop up the more professional officers, said Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgio, the Italian general who heads the international military coalition's police training in Kabul.
The Marines at Combat Outpost Turbett almost universally consider ANCOP police more motivated than the Afghan soldiers who followed U.S. forces into battle against Taliban fighters last month.
"We've been through thick and thin together," one Bravo Company Marine officer, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said of the Afghan soldiers. "We've been through thick, and they've been through thin."
At this outpost, Shah's police have nearly supplanted an equal number of Afghan soldiers as the go-to force for the Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
Marjah residents, like many Afghans, regard the Afghan National Police with contempt. The police who controlled Marjah before the Taliban seized it were seen as corrupt cronies interested mainly in their own enrichment.
If the new ANCOP force gains the same reputation, the U.S. campaign to win the trust of Marjah — and of wary Afghans around the country — could founder quickly, dimming the Obama administration's hopes to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011.
The force's effectiveness across Marjah has been uneven, with Shah's forces apparently performing the best.
Marines in other parts of Marjah have faced early problems working with ANCOP leaders who've blunted their effectiveness, said Army Lt. Col. Bob O'Brien, 40, from Fort Bragg, N.C., who commands one of the military coalition ANCOP advisory teams. A few officers have had to be pushed out.
"There may be a few less security forces in certain areas, but the quality of what's left is definitely making up for the loss of those bad apples," O'Brien said.
In judging the Afghan security forces, though, the Americans have come to recalibrate their expectations.
"If you judge them by our context, you're setting them up for failure," said Lt. Mark Greenlief, a 26-year-old Monmouth, Ill., native who's the executive officer for Bravo Company. "But ANCOP are far and above the proficiency of the Afghan National Police."
Members of ANCOP are drawn from the nation's small officer corps, and they receive better pay for working in areas such as Marjah. They must have basic literacy skills, and they undergo twice the training of regular police officers.
Even so, ANCOP is unable to carry out sophisticated operations without help from U.S. and other coalition forces.
The new Afghan police station at this combat outpost is little more than three sparse rooms surrounded by sandbag walls. It has no lockup, and it must detain suspects in the rooms where the officers operate.
Apart from a small number of checkpoints scattered across this part of Marjah, the police are able to patrol effectively only the dusty street market right outside the Marine compound.
The limits of the police work were evident last week when a young farmer with a bloody gauze bandage wrapped around his head walked into the police station to file a complaint.
A gang of rivals had slashed the farmer's head open with a scythe in a feud over a water pump.
Shah, a former Soviet-era police commander with a gravelly voice, sent the farmer off to be treated by U.S. Navy medics and told the man to let Shah's police know if he saw his assailants walking around the nearby market.
"There is no security, so we can't go there right now," Shah said after the farmer left to be treated for his life-threatening injury. "The place is not clear yet."
Despite the constraints, Shah has become an integral part of the U.S. military operation.
He regularly turns up at the Marine combat operation center to pass along tips about Taliban meetings, turn over hand-drawn maps pointing out the location of suspected roadside bombs and provide real-time intelligence about possible insurgent attacks. Coderre said the accuracy of Shah's tips was about 50-50, but that may have been a charitable estimate. On the other hand, tips, which come from locals, are often off the mark.
Shah has even taken on the task of teaching the first class of boys in the tiny courtyard of the mosque across from the Marine compound. After a few days, the temporary grade school grew from 10 to 50 students.
American officials are betting that Shah and his police can buy them time and good will while they train the regular national police to assume control of Marjah and Afghanistan.
There are no firm plans for the transition, but Marine officials said that Shah's forces could remain in Marjah for a year.
"Hopefully, they have the ability to do the right thing," said Coderre, who's 32. "If not, s--t, we're fighting a losing battle."
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)
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