MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- The first recruits have graduated to a new Afghan community force the U.S. military hopes will boost local security against the Taliban, and do for Afghanistan what Sunni militias did in Iraq.
The U.S. military says the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) will free up police by guarding schools, mosques, and roads, and boost traditional power structures fractured by war and threatened by the Taliban's hardline brand of justice.
Some 243 recruits have received three weeks of training and will soon return to their embattled home district of Jalrez in Maidan Wardak, 55 kilometers southwest of Kabul, in a pilot scheme U.S. commanders hope can be extended across the country.
"This program was created at a time when the communities of Maidan Wardak urgently need protection from the enemies of Afghanistan," U.S. General David McKiernan, commander of international troops in Afghanistan, told the recruits at their graduation ceremony at a base east of Kabul.
In the last year Taliban insurgents have expanded into the mountainous province and attacked fuel and supply convoys on the highway between the capital and the south.
Greatly strengthening both the Afghan army and police, U.S. officers acknowledge, is the only long-term exit plan for the 70,000 mainly Western troops now in Afghanistan.
But Afghan security forces are having a tough time and have suffered hundreds of casualties fighting an increasingly confident Taliban insurgency.
"In a lot of ways they are being overwhelmed," said a U.S. army advisor who declined to be named. "The fighting is becoming more and more intense every year.... The Taliban seem to grow increasingly stronger, they don't seem to be losing ground."
"We need to free up more highly trained more experienced officers to do more pivotal roles," he said.
The Afghan government, backed by the international community, is still trying to disarm local militias run by warlords and some Afghan politicians have said the community force scheme will simply pour more arms into a country already awash with guns and gunmen.
"You must prove wrong those who believe your actions will be influenced by criminals or by the enemies of Afghanistan," McKiernan said. "Prove wrong those who believe you might use your new skills and weapons against other communities."
U.S. General David Petraeus is credited with greatly reducing violence in Iraq by arming Sunni tribal militias against Al-Qaeda, combined with a "surge" of U.S. troops.
Petraeus is now in overall command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well. Washington has already approved the deployment of 17,000 extra U.S. troops and will unveil a new strategy for Afghanistan on March 27, expected to emphasize economic development and expanding Afghan security forces.
The APPF is "totally different" from the Iraqi tribal militias, McKiernan told reporters. "This is a means to use a community-based, bottom-up approach to improve security."
Members of the force are not drawn from one tribe, but nominated by a cross-section of village elders who have to vouch for each recruit, Afghan and U.S. officials say.
They will be held to account if, like the previous auxiliary police force, they prey on the populace.
"Their feet will be held to the flame by the Ministry of Interior for misconduct," said the U.S. army adviser. "These guys work for the Afghan government."
The next batch of 200 APPF recruits from a neighboring district of Jalrez will now start training. The whole program will be reviewed in the next two months.
"This is one district at a time, see how it works and then we'll make decisions based on that," Major General Richard Formica, the commander of the U.S. force that trains the Afghan army and police, told reporters.
The members of the new force will help bring a local face to security in Jalrez and act as the eyes and ears for Afghan and international security forces in their district, said the NATO force's deputy chief of staff, Major General Michael Tucker.
"That's 243 sensors in that village that weren't there before and they know the difference when...someone who doesn't belong to the village is there," he said. "We would never know. We could walk right past Al-Qaeda and not know it. They know."