WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The six young men looked too scrawny to fulfill the high hopes placed on their shoulders.
They were members of the Afghan Public Protection Program, an auxiliary police force recruited from local villages in strategically important Wardak province. The force has been compared (mistakenly) to the Sunni militias that helped U.S. troops stem al-Qaeda violence in Iraq.
The Wardak program is a pilot project designed to provide local volunteers to help hold areas that have been cleared of Taliban by U.S. and Afghan troops. They are trained by the Afghan national police, who in turn are trained by a team of U.S. Special Forces. The special-ops guys call the volunteers "the AP3" or "the Guardians."
"We want to do this all over the country," said Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, referring to the project. Yet some news reports cite the slow progress of this experiment as one reason his boss, Gen. David McKiernan, was suddenly fired on Monday.
So what are we to make of the Guardians of Wardak? If they're so important, why is the project advancing at such a measured pace?
The Guardians are the brainchild of Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a hard-driving, English-speaking official. He says the Afghan police, a national force, are too few and too unfamiliar with local villages to secure them against insurgents. "For security, you must know the community," Atmar told me.
The Guardians, picked and vetted by community elders, are charged with guarding key people and key infrastructure, such as schools, roads, and bridges. They look out for strangers and guard against the planting of improvised explosive devices.
Unlike the Sons of Iraq in Anbar province, the Guardians are not a fighting force, and they are recruited only after an area is cleared of Taliban. They get three weeks of training, a uniform, a weapon, and $120 a month from the Interior Ministry (all paid for by the United States). They can call in help from the Afghan police or army, or from a small team of U.S. Special Forces mentors in the province.
I asked the lead Special Forces adviser to the program, a U.S. Army major who preferred to be unidentified, if the AP3 is a top U.S. priority for the entire country. "Without a shadow of a doubt," he replied quickly. Yet the project seems to lack urgency.
The goal is to field 1,200 Guardians in Wardak province, but only 1½ districts have completed recruitment, producing 243 volunteers.
In part, this is because the Taliban is still active in parts of Wardak, and families fear they will be targeted if their sons join. Provincial council members complain that the lightly armed Guardians are vulnerable to attack. Some still have old Czech rifles that jam if they aren't cleaned repeatedly. Hardier AK-47s are coming.
But the most urgent complaint was that U.S. officials promised economic projects, such as local roads and mosque repairs, if villagers cooperated, but the projects have not materialized. "People have given their sons, but none of this is happening," said Wardak's dynamic governor, Halim Fidai, a strong supporter of the Guardians program.
Also, there is a growing lack of trust between Guardians and their Special Forces mentors in the district of Nerkh, caused by an incident last month in which three Guardians were killed and three injured by a roadside IED.
The six young volunteers I met, all from Nerkh, were eager to talk about this episode. They claim their colleagues were killed after being "forced" by U.S. Special Forces operatives to accompany them on patrol, even though the Afghans were banned from leaving their assigned villages.
The Special Forces lead adviser and other U.S. military officials told a different story - that the three were killed while returning home from an assignment to protect a community meeting. Several provincial officials, including the Nerkh district chief, Mohammad Hanif Hanifi, dispute this version and corroborate the Guardians' story.
Bottom line: The Wardak project still has promise, but it requires more focus, swifter delivery of aid, and stricter guidelines for Special Forces mentors. And - if this project is as important as U.S. officials claim - more effort must be made to develop it in a timely fashion. In today's Afghanistan, there is no time to waste.