Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is in Washington this week. He's already met with President Obama, and the White House is debating how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.
One factor in that decision: whether Afghans can take over the fight.
An area of Afghanistan that was the scene of major combat a year ago is now a test case for whether peace can hold in the country. North of the district of Marjah, in Helmand province, Marines are working with locals who know the area and know the enemy.
"It's basically like a neighborhood watch with guns," explains Marine Sgt. Jon Moulder.
The Local Advantage
If America ever finds something close to success in Afghanistan and is able to withdraw large numbers of troops, it may be because of the likes of Isutalah and Mohammed Gul.
The two men wear gray uniforms and man a small patrol base set along a dirt road as part of that local defense force, called Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, or ISCI.
The men who serve in the force are chosen by tribal elders, paid $150 per month and patrol with the Americans.
Isutalah explains through a translator how he helps the Americans: He can spot the Taliban. He's from this area, he says, so he knows things like who's a Talib and who's not. And he says there are a lot of Taliban in this area.
Moulder says the ISCI forces are a key partner because of that local knowledge.
One day out on patrol, Moulder and his squad crossed fields and met with local villagers. Isutalah and Mohammed Gul of the ISCI force greeted their neighbors.
Moulder says the program has paid off: This area just to the north of Marjah — the center of the insurgency in Helmand province only a year ago — has been quiet for more than two months.
Moulder says that's because this local watch group passes on intelligence, and isn't afraid to hunt down Taliban fighters.
"They're a lot more aggressive than the [Afghan National Army]. That's kind of their culture, though; that's kind of what they do," Moulder says.
Most young men around here don't want to join the National Army. Some don't trust the Karzai government; others don't want to serve away from home. So the top Marine commander here, Col. Dave Furness, says this local defense force helps fill a void.
"There's a huge appetite for local defense forces in Marjah," Furness says. "The elders like it. The locals like it because they can serve locally."
Furness says there are now some 400 men who've joined the local defense forces in Marjah, and he expects another 400 will sign up by the end of the summer.
Counting On Tribal Elders
To hit that number, the colonel will need some help, and the person the Americans are counting on is a local tribal elder named Haji Gul Mawla.
When Gul Mawla swept into a large plywood building at the Marine compound, sweets and drinks had been set aside for him and other elders. They went through the ritual greetings and then got down to business. That meant talking with the Marines about security and getting paid for the ISCI members they'd recruited.
Gul Mawla is a burly man with a thick gold watch. He fought against the Soviets two decades ago, as well as the Taliban. And he was the first in the area to set up an ISCI group back in February.
Mawla says he got tired of the Taliban. He says the advantage the ISCI forces have over the Afghan National Army and police force is that members are local and they can recognize the Taliban. The police and army are from different areas, he says.
Gul Mawla has paid a price for working with the Americans. His brother lost a leg to a roadside bomb, and he has escaped several assassination attempts. But he's pushing other local elders to join the effort. He says most of his friends promise him they will start ISCI forces — their own neighborhood watches. Hopefully, they will, he adds.
Fighting The Poppy Trade And Corruption
That would fit the nationwide effort by Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, to recruit thousands of local defense forces. It parallels a program called the Sons of Iraq, which Petraeus used to help turn around the insurgency when he was the top commander in that country.
But the Marines know that some of the tribal elders they are seeking out as allies bring some baggage. At the top of the list? Drugs.
Many elders here have grown wealthy through the illegal opium trade, which is centered in this part of Helmand province.
While on a patrol with the Marines, Afghan National Army Sgt. Mohammed Sahdwer dumped sacks of poppy seeds into the strong wind.
"No good, poppy. Poppy no good," Sahdwer remarked.
In nearly every house inspected on that patrol, there were signs of the drug trade: sacks of seeds or dried poppy stalks.
The Marines say they've cut a deal with the elders: Don't grow poppy and we'll pay you to set up a local watch unit.
So drugs are one problem; another is corruption. Sgt. Omar, an Afghan soldier critical of the local ISCI forces, says they only want one thing: money.
He said there are reports that some ISCI are shaking down local farmers for protection money. If they don't pay, they're accused of being Taliban.
One Marine officer confirmed there has been extortion by ISCI forces but said that when it happens, the Marines move to stop it.
Like so much here in Afghanistan, problems like drugs and corruption have to be balanced against fighting the Taliban.
Sgt. Thomas Whorl, who works with ISCI units, brushes aside the complaints. He says the local defense forces have helped against the greatest threat here: roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
"They found a lot of IED caches that we probably never would have found," Whorl says. "Four times they came in with a whole trunkload full of IEDs, or IED materials or weapons ... So they're very proactive in the area with keeping security, talking to the elders, you know — gaining that foothold in keeping it."
Most Marines interviewed in northern Marjah agree with the sergeant. They say the ISCI program makes the area safer.
A Missed Connection
Still, with all the Afghan security forces here, there are frustrations: everything from petty corruption and drug use to desertion — or simply not keeping an appointment.
One afternoon this month, the ISCI forces were supposed to show up at a remote American patrol base to go out with a squad of Marines. The Afghans never showed.
So Sgt. Jake Powell pushed his patrol to go to them.
The Marines sloshed across flooded fields, with mud and water over their boots. They hopped over narrow canals to reach the ISCI base, a disheveled compound. A shirtless man washing himself by a canal said his commander and most of his men had gone to another American base for training. There would be no patrol today.
Powell was frustrated.
"Next time that we have something planned and you can't come, you need to call us over the radios that we gave you or have your cell phones on and let us know that you can't make it," he told the man.
With that, Powell assembled his Marines and headed back out to cross the fields and canals — without his armed neighborhood watch.