MARJAH, Afghanistan — Namatullah, a 19-year-old volunteer for a new armed "neighborhood watch" militia now patrolling alongside Marines in northeast Marjah, simply drew his finger across his throat when asked why he and other residents hadn't banded together to protect their districts until the arrival of the U.S. soldiers.
"Before, we were scared of the Taliban. Not now," he said. "Now I carry an AK (AK-47 rifle) and feel good."
Namatullah, who goes by just one name, gave up farming to join the new militia, known by the jawbreaking name of Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, the latest innovation in the U.S. campaign to wrest Marjah and the southern province of Helmand from Taliban influence.
The Marines have to get Marjah right. This previously obscure town is the showcase for the revamped U.S. counter-insurgency strategy, after a massive Marine-led offensive that took Marjah from the Taliban in February 2010. However, critics suggest that the U.S. is creating unsustainable security bubbles in places like Marjah.
The idea of the ISCI, which is unique to Marjah, is simple enough: develop a local force that can instantly recognize Taliban trying to infiltrate back. The Marines excitedly compare it to the sons of Iraq, the movement that started in 2005 and played a key role in separating the people from the insurgents in Iraq. The Marines raised and finance the ISCI, and oversee their training.
But already, the concept is controversial.
At 800 strong, the ISCI dwarfs the town police force of 300, raising historic concerns that have always surrounded armed forces in Afghanistan, which have been responsible for some of the worst violence in a country brutalized by 30 years of war. Militias in Afghanistan have often changed sides and been used by local strongmen for their own greedy ends. Pro-government militias, hybrids that are neither police nor military, have been accused of favoritism, extortion and other abuses.
"The elders understand there can't be a return to warlordism," said Lt. Col. David Hudspeth, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, part of the 2,000-strong Marine presence in Marjah. .
Mostly made up of illiterate farmers, the ISCI is a ragtag force. Its ranks include some former Taliban, residents and Marines admit, and there already have been some problems ISCI groups have clashed and in January an ISCI unit fought an hour-long battle with Marines.
But district governor Abdul Mutalab said that the ISCI is "playing a positive role" in transforming this backwater from a one-time Taliban stronghold into what the Marines hope will be a long-term success.
The militia is organized into units of about 30 men, one for each of the town's districts, which are laid out in 53 U.S.-style blocks. Well over half the blocks are covered by the scheme.
The Marines pay members of ISCI $150 a month — about a third less than a junior police officer. Every new ISCI block also receives $5,000 from the Marines to get started.
The existence of the militia has clearly made Marjah residents feel much safer, and the ISCI groups remain intact despite being targeted by the Taliban. Bazgul, the first Marjah resident to stand up a neighborhood armed force after the Marines arrived, which is now part of the ISCI, said that his brother was kidnapped by the Taliban three months ago. In late January they found his remains "in a hole in the ground." He's undeterred.
"I'm afraid of only my God. No one else," said Bazgul, who fought the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan back in the 1980s and, like many Afghans, goes by one name.
The long-term future of the ISCI initiative, however, is uncertain. Discussions are being held about moving some members into the regular police, and others into a scheme called Afghan Local Police, which is a militia-style force backed by the U.S. thats being rolled out across Afghanistan.
Whatever its fate, Marines insist ISCI has proved a point, that a sizeable number of Marjah residents are willing to risk their lives by taking a stand against the Taliban.
"This is a relatively cheap process for us and the payoff is huge," said Lt. Matthew Caterisano, 28, of Plano, Texas. "The ISCI force has doubled in five weeks."
Still, not everyone is happy with group.
"The ISCI are uneducated. They cannot advance government or the law," said Taimor Shah, an elder who lives in the town's northeast. "Some people in the ISCI were in the Taliban before. We cannot trust them."
The Marines insist that transition to Afghan control is taking place in Marjah. However, Marines remain firmly in charge of security and are also acting, essentially, as an interim government, organizing and financing everything from the ISCI to trash collection, street lighting, and the opening of schools.
"We're trying to fill the void until GIROA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) can pick it up," said Hudspeth, 39, of Hamptonville, N.C. "Our efforts are like a booster rocket, the starter."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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