Afghan villagers join forces with U.S. coalition to bring peace to Marjah
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2011
NORTHERN MARJAH, Afghanistan — Ali Mohammad pleaded with the Taliban to stop putting improvised bombs around his compound, explaining that they were more likely to kill children or goats than they were to injure U.S. Marines, who stomped into Marjah district in March 2010.
The Taliban wouldn’t listen.
So, like a lot of people in this spread of slapdash farms, Mohammad fled the violence and settled in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital.
Now the Taliban are all but gone from his village, and Mohammad is back.
He has a new job: no longer a farmer, he’s now a U.S. government contractor. A hired gun.
Mohammad is among more than 300 men who have joined a local defense force known as the ISCI, or Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, in northern Marjah. The temporary program, funded by the U.S. but commanded by the local police chief, pays individuals $150 per month to keep the Taliban out and coalition forces informed of threats to security.
The ISCI, which are separate from a national local defense force program with a similar function known as the Afghan Local Police, started taking shape in November as a stopgap to cover a shortage of Afghan forces. The International Security Assistance Force, which oversees all coalition operations in Afghanistan, didn’t authorize the Afghan-led ALP program for Marjah until March.
Hastikhan, one of the first ISCI leaders in northern Marjah, signed up along with two of his brothers, he said, because the Marines and elders in his village asked him.
“The Marines, [Afghan Uniformed Police and Afghan National Army] don’t know who is from the area, who is a Talib,” he said through an interpreter. “Because of that, we decided to join ISCI and make a Marjah a secure place.”
He’s aware of the dangers, and the possibility of becoming an insurgent target by siding with the government. Because of that, he said, his family isn’t entirely supportive of his new role.
“Every family has a different idea,” Hastikhan said. His wife especially didn’t want him in the ISCI or supporting the Afghan government, “because maybe some Talib will find me, or if I pass away, my wife will be a target. They’re scared.”
Mohammad Wais, who recruited Mohammad and more than a dozen other ISCI serving in a part of northern Marjah called Trek Nawa, moved his family to Lashkar Gah before joining the initiative for fear of the Taliban, according to the Marines who convinced him to start ISCI in his village.
Despite the locals’ fear of repercussion, the Marines have had a relatively easy time recruiting in northern Marjah, an indication, the Marines believe, that the people here are deciding to throw in with the government. But there is economic pressure as well.
The district is among those hardest hit by the war, and prospects for most young men here had been grim prior to the Marines’ arrival: join the Taliban or flee. Many took the latter option, and have had difficulty finding work in Lashkar Gah, a city saturated with young Helmandis who refused to pick up arms for the Taliban.
Mohammad, who was recruited from Lashkar Gah, joined because he wanted to help the Americans to stop the fighting, he said. He also realized that the U.S. will eventually leave, and “we have to take the security by ourselves,” he said through an interpreter. “This is our area, we’re going to have to keep the security by ourselves.”
That’s what the Marines want.
“The purpose behind it is really just to get the locals involved in securing their own villages,” said Capt. Mathew Lesnowicz, the officer in charge of the Marine’s Police Advisory Team for Marjah district.
Lesnowicz noted that Marjah has only about 400 of the 575 official police its authorized, nearly all of which are in and around the district center. The district, he said, still needs more forces to reach the number called for by Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine. The Marines are trying to make up the shortfall with local forces.
For the most part, the ISCI’s activities are limited to patrolling and gathering information, and are authorized to fire only when fired upon. Hastikhan has found 20 improvised explosive devices, he said, partly with the help of people in his village on the west side of Northern Marjah. He also got in a gunfight with a Taliban insurgent, who he wounded and arrested.
While the ISCI are prepared to fight if confronted, the Marines are quick to say that the ISCI are not a militia; they’re in a defensive posture only.
In some areas, though, their responsibility extends well beyond providing security. In Trek Nawa, a remote area where Mohammad is based, the ISCI are the only sign of Afghan government authority. Here, they are both the neighborhood watch and a proxy for the government.
The Marines tie residents’ cooperation with setting up their own local defense forces to sought-after development projects such as wells and schools. No ISCI, no development.
To draw support for the Afghan government, the Marines funnel those development projects through the ISCI to give the impression that the government is providing something to the people.
In a village in eastern Trek Nawa, Marines from Golf Company’s 3rd Platoon paid to build a well and a bridge over a canal to make it easier for farmers to move their crops. They gave the money to Rafiullah, a relative of Wais who commands two nearby ISCI posts.
Rafiullah found builders, negotiated prices, oversaw construction and paid the workers. He was allowed to keep whatever money was left over to buy supplies and weapons, which neither the Afghan government nor the Marines provide.
The Marines are aware of the potential for abuse in such a system, but insist that such deals are part of the Afghan business culture and no different from ordinary contracting.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a business venture for [Rafiullah],” said Sgt. Donald Hickman, a 24-year-old squad leader from Bastrop, La., who works closely with the ISCI around Patrol Base Lambert in eastern Trek Nawa. Hickman doesn’t think the newly minted commander is using his position for a power grab, “he’s just standing up for his country and wants his people to do the same thing.”
After Rafiullah’s well and bridge were complete, the people realized, “Oh, OK, I get it. Once we stand up, establish our own security, we’re going to get these projects. We’re going to get help from the government,” said 1st Lt. Charles A. Jedlicka, 3rd Platoon’s 27-year-old commander from Fairfax, Va.
“Tying projects the government’s bringing to security ... seems to be working down here,” he said.
Still, local response to the ISCI isn’t entirely positive. Residents complained to the Marines recently after ISCI shook down locals — “Typical things you’re going to see in Afghanistan or any third-world country, but still not the face you want on it,” Jedlicka said.
In that instance, the ISCI weren’t from local villages, but recruited from Lashkar Gah, he said. They’ve since gone through retraining.
Despite the abuses, which the Marines say are few, the ISCI appear to be providing the security the Marines hoped for.
The IED strikes and finds that characterized much of June for 3rd Platoon — eight in one two-week period — dwindled after Rafiullah and his men established their first ISCI post. They’ve had no IED incidents in the last two weeks.
“I think [the Taliban] didn’t really want to come into the village so much because they didn’t know who was talking to the ISCI, who wasn’t,” Jedlicka said.
“They’re providing security for their own villages, so they really care about what goes on there,” said Cpl. Trenton Craig, a combat engineer attached to 3rd Platoon. The Afghan army soldiers who patrol and live with the Marines are good, but not invested in the communities like the ISCI, he said. “It seems like they’re really good guys, and they’re actually in it to win it.”