Afghanistan: Looking for a Few Good Cops in Marjah

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Max Becherer / Polaris

Marines Commander Lieut. Colonel Brian Christmas congratulates the first volunteers of the Marjah police force

No one showed up for the start of official recruitment for Marjah's first local police force. No one showed up until the third — and last — day at a U.S. Marines base in North Marjah, the Afghan district invaded by American and Afghan military forces in February. Locals told the 3rd Division 6th Marines that they had reservations about joining the force — they were too scared of or too intimidated by the Taliban to risk allying themselves with foreign forces in a landscape that the Marines are still struggling to bring under control.

Set in the rural desert-farm country west of the Helmand River, Marjah is unremarkable but for its reputation as a major poppy-cultivation district and as the site of the February offensive by the Marines, the largest one by NATO in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. More recently, it has gained notoriety among the war's critics for the slow pace of achieving security here and for NATO Commander Stanley McChrystal's characterization of the area as a "bleeding ulcer," a remark reported by McClatchy Newspapers.

Indeed, Marjah's local government remains primitive at best. Firefights between the Marines and insurgents occur daily. And the 77-sq.-mi. (199 sq km) swath of territory in Helmand province wasn't even defined as a district until the Marines' push four months ago. The district governor is Haji Zahir, a man who Marines Commander Lieut. Colonel Brian Christmas says is making steady inroads with the local population but who other military and local sources allege is just another operator in a country already full of them.

Christmas acknowledges that in the long quest for Marjah's security, the Marines hold 80% of the solution. The other 20%, he says, is up to the local population, and the establishment of a local police force "could be that 20%." "The people have to be willing to sacrifice and be part of the solution," says Christmas. "In this case, the solution is the police force — guys who are from the town, who know the people and understand every road and which way it goes ... That's the future of security here."

On Sunday, the third and final day of police recruitment at Christmas' headquarters at Camp Hanson, the commander's efforts to spread the word finally paid off. Christmas had hoped for 80 recruits but had to settle for 11 — fresh-faced, mostly beardless and smiling. Some looked a little too young to be police officers, but all claimed to be old enough: 18 and up. More important, they had passed the initial screening; all said they were ready and willing to serve their country, had secured the signatures of two local elders to vouch for their credibility and had not been flagged by the Marines' computer database. "My relatives and friends left because there is no security here," says new recruit Saif Allah, 22. "I want to bring it back."

After a morning of paperwork and instructions, they were ready to make their way to Lashkar Gah to undergo a two-month training course, along with new recruits from other regions of the volatile province. If they make it to the end, the 11 will be the beginnings of Marjah's first local police force and potentially a key to alleviating Marjah's bleeding-ulcer status.

Captain Michael Vasquez, the Marine regiment's project manager for police recruitment, says a lot rides on the success of this first class. "The goal was set high, but like anything, it's going to be incremental," he says. "A lot of the elders want to see how it goes. So the fact that we have 11 is a major victory ... If everything goes well, you won't have 80 in the next class, you'll have 180."

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