For eight years since the U.S.-aided toppling of the Taliban, the residents of the Qala-e Zal district of Konduz Province have relied on Afghan government forces for security.
Until recently, that seemed enough.
But beginning some 18 months ago, the Taliban began returning to this area of northern Afghanistan in force.
They made their stronghold in the neighboring district of Chahar Dara, where they have traditionally received support.
Then they began spreading out across Konduz Province. Afghan forces, supported by more than 4,000 German soldiers, have confronted them but the province is large and the security forces cannot be everywhere at once.
Now, in Qala-e Zal district, worried local officials have taken matters into their own hands. Election Fears
Just before the first round of Afghanistan's presidential election on August 20, the officials asked the Taliban for a promise not to attack people going to the polls in their district. When the Taliban refused, the district governor convened the local council and all agreed to go ahead with the vote anyway. And they agreed to create a self-defense force.
"We decided that in Qala-e Zal we would hire 150 to 200 "auxiliaries" to the police force," says the district governor, Mohammad Nazir. "And we decided the people who are hired should be good people whose character can be vouched for by the mullahs, the elders, or the council itself. We had to hire good people, not irresponsible ones."
Nazir, a former school principal, is an ethnic Pashtun, presiding over a district with a majority ethnic Turkmen population. The district also has ethnic Pashtun, Uzbek, and Tajik minorities.
The idea of raising a local militia to increase security ahead of the vote was endorsed by the governor of Konduz, Engineer Omar. He promised to help persuade a former mujahedin commander to lead the force and to provide a handful of weapons. But the project was to be entirely locally funded.
The man they called upon for help was at that time a successful Turkmen restaurateur in Mazar-e Sharif. His name is Nabi, but like many Afghans with stature among their peers, he has a nickname. It is Gechi, Turkmen for "mountain goat." He earned it as a commander in the anti-Soviet mujahedin, when he moved around the mountains with all the agility of his namesake.
Nabi was an anti-Soviet commander
At first, Nabi, now 49, was not eager to come Qala-e Zal.
"I have a good restaurant and bakery business in Mazar,” he says. “We bake 4,500 to 5,000 breads and cook 50 to 200 kilograms of fish and make 7 to 25 kilograms of rice pilau every day."
But after several phone calls, he came -- alone and carrying nothing but his assault rifle. He made almost the entire 10-hour journey by foot because of the danger of false checkpoints set up by the Taliban on the road.
The local council raised money from the citizenry to equip Nabi with a force. To date, the force includes 60 fighters armed with Kalashnikovs, five rocket-propelled grenades, and a small, portable mortar. The council pays each man 6,200 afghanis ($124) per month plus 2,000 afghanis ($40) more for food.History Of Militias
Local militias have a long history in Afghanistan and are a hallmark of the 30 years of fighting that has racked the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979. After the fall of the Taliban, one of the first initiatives of the UN was to sponsor an effort to entice local militias to lay down their arms. That goal was seen as necessary to enable a new national government to administer the country.
Now, as Afghanistan's security situation worsens, militias are again the subject of much attention. As part of his comprehensive review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama this week asked senior officials to determine on a province-by-province basis which regions are being managed effectively by local leaders and which require international help.
Part of the approach appears to weigh the feasibility of partnering with local friendly forces, or co-opting hostile ones, against the slow progress of establishing wider central government control. One model is the U.S. success in Iraq in allying with local groups to oust Al-Qaeda long before the Baghdad central government was ready or able to do the same job.
Nabi's force fought its first major engagement on September 2. Taliban fighters were threatening a border guard base where Qala-e Zal abuts Tajikistan. The base was manned by 100 to 150 soldiers and needed reinforcements.
The morning after Nabi's forces arrived, the battle began.
"At 5:30, the attack began and lasted until 10:30," he says. "There were about 800 Taliban. They had brought in forces [not just from around Konduz but also the neighboring provinces] of Samangan and Baghlan. Thanks to God, we lost no one but they had 14 to 15 casualties, including killed."
After the battle, the Taliban withdrew to their stronghold in nearby Chahar Dara district and have not returned en masse to Qala-e Zal. Nabi claims things are now "85 to 90 percent" quiet in the district, the opposite of what it was before the local defense force was created.Climate Of Fear
But even with the Taliban now giving its attention to softer targets elsewhere in Konduz, the situation in Qala-e Zal is far from normal.
Across this part of northern Afghanistan, the Taliban has successfully created a climate of fear by assassinations and kidnappings of those who oppose it. They also have exacted endless protection payments from residents, demanding an "Islamic tax" on orchards or any other source of profit, and punishing those who do not pay.
Hajjar (left) challenged the Taliban with a shotgun
The general security situation has deteriorated so badly that the German Development Ministry, which has invested heavily in reconstruction projects, has temporarily reduced the number of its aid workers since August to limit exposure during the elections and because some projects in some areas cannot be continued. It and other international NGOs working in the area are constantly reassessing the security situation.
The climate of fear has been further heightened by criminals capitalizing on the Taliban's success. Robbers posing as members of the fundamentalist militia intimidate their victims with threats of retaliation if they go to the police.
The anarchy has given Nabi's force a second reason for existence: to act as police themselves. That was demonstrated recently when a group of three men attacked a home in a remote area of Qala-e Zal district.
As the men attacked, the homeowner, Rashid, fled to summon help from the auxiliaries. His three wives, aged 50, 28, and 24 remained alone inside.
The middle wife, Hajjar, seized the family shotgun as the men, whom she describes as bearded "Talibs," jumped across the wall into the garden.
"The Taliban came into the garden and I fired the shotgun," Hajjar says. "Almost at the same time, Nabi's forces arrived and, thank God, we survived. If he didn't come, they could have violated us and shamed us. I think some of the pellets from the shotgun hit one in the side of the face."
In Qala-e Zal district, many people praise the formation of a vigilante force as a step toward restoring security in an area where the national army and police are hard-pressed to control the Taliban and criminal gangs.
"Here there was no security before," says one Pashtun elder, Haji Hafizullah. "But after this group was assembled by the district governor and police, thank God, now we have security."
But the apparent success in Qala-e Zal may be only the first chapter in a much more complex story if more districts raise similar militias. And it could become more complex still if Washington opts to work with provincial governors, tribal leaders, and local militias as one alternative to waiting for the weak central government to secure the country.
In that case, the challenge for both the U.S. and Afghan governments will be how to maintain enough control over the local forces to guarantee that they advance law-and-order rather than undermine it.
Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Konduz, Noor Mohammed Sahim, contributed to this report
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the German Development Ministry had withdrawn from Afghanistan's Konduz Province.