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Neighborhood watch gaining foothold in Marjah

ARLINGTON, Va. — Neighborhood watch programs, typically the domain of riled-up, would-be crime stoppers in community associations across America, are apparently catching on in the Marjah district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The top U.S. commander there told the Pentagon press corps Tuesday that Marines are seeing increasing interest among residents in organizing formal groups to keep an eye on villages.

Some are unarmed and mostly provide information about insurgency activity to local forces. Others are designated and paid by the district police chief, carry weapons and set themselves apart with arm bands, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, head of Task Force Leatherneck.

The latter are part of the newly sanctioned Afghan Local Police initiative that got its start last month. They’re a sort of Afghan National Police light. Defensive only, with limited powers, they are “essentially neighborhood watch programs,” Osterman said. He’s quick to point out that they are not local militias roaming with impunity (for the trouble that can cause, see: Iraq). Osterman said they are ensuring the neighborhood groups are under government control.

The watch groups are meant to bolster the national police, which is 300-strong in Marjah and slowly earning the local population’s trust, he said. Given that a police force “literally didn’t exist a couple of months ago” and residents weren’t interested in having one, Osterman said he is pleased with how Marjah citizens are coming to embrace the police.

He offered this anecdote: Two weeks ago, a family had a lost child who they feared was a victim of a firefight, but instead of seeking out the Marines’ help they went to the police, who conducted a search and found the lost, unharmed child.

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