By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 8, 2009 - Provincial, local and tribal leaders, along with special operators and 10th Mountain Division soldiers deployed here, today gave Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates their stamp of approval on a new program that's getting local Afghans to help build security in their communities. The Afghan Public Protection Program is an Afghan-led initiative that recruits and trains local people to serve as community guard forces in unsecured regions. Operated under the Afghan Interior Ministry, it helps to ensure law and order and build governance at the community level, a U.S. special operator serving here as a mentor told reporters traveling with Gates.
"This is an Afghan program," he said. "Our role is to facilitate."
With the first group of 242 APPP members completing its three-week training program focused on marksmanship, first aid, rules of engagement and other military basics in March, the program is starting to prove itself in Wardak province's Jalrez district, he said.
A second training class of 80 members is in session, which will bring the program to more than 300 members within the next month.
Wardak Gov. Mohamad Halim Fadai offered Gates a solid endorsement of the program, which he said is making a big difference in the security situation here.
"We can see very tangible results," he said, noting that a road that had been closed for six months due to frequent violence has now reopened. Attacks are down dramatically, he told Gates, predicting that the APPP can play a major role in providing security and stability here.
One of the U.S. special operators mentoring the new force said an APPP lieutenant recently found an improvised explosive device and called on the Afghan security forces so it could be disabled. "That's one of several success stories," the officer said.
The key to the success, Fadai told Gates, is community buy-in.
Community leaders nominate prospective members, who are vetted at three different levels before being accepted into the program. Recruits must be physically fit and drug-free Afghan citizens, have no criminal record and live in or come from the districts where they will work. They work closely with the Afghan National Police, wearing olive-drab uniforms and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, but they have no arrest authority.
Initial concerns that the two groups might bump heads have proven wrong, the special operator told reporters. "So far, we are very enthusiastic about the relationship," he said.
Gates told reporters he's happy with what he heard about the program, and the way it has been embraced by the provincial and district leaders here. "They felt it was a significant addition to their efforts and has made a real difference in terms of local security," he said.
Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO's International Security Assistance Force, also praised the program that's been compared to the "Sons of Iraq" program in Iraq. APPP applies a "bottom-up approach" to security, with community members serving as a local security force in support of the police, he said.
McKiernan called the salaries the United States pays the participants – less than a police officer's starting salary – a good investment with a potentially big payoff. "And that's security," he said.