By Rob Taylor
DEY GAIROW, Afghanistan, April 25 (Reuters) - A year ago Ahmad Shah and a handful of other farmers became unlikely poster boys for the intensifying Afghanistan war when they wearied of Taliban threats and demands and drove insurgents from their remote southern river valley home.
Now Shah, his black beard streaked with silver, again holds U.S. and NATO hopes in his hands, being one of the first to don a new brown uniform for localised police units that the government hopes will safeguard communities across the country.
"The Taliban used to drive down from Tirin Kot and attack us. They would kill us or demand money. We had enough," said Shah, looking out over green fields ringed by snow-capped mountains in Daykundi province.
Shah and the other 30 or so members of his Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit, or Tashkil, insist they will not turn into a repeat of the militias that fractured the country for decades under powerful warlords.
Their U.S. trainers are also anxious that the controversial formation of the local police -- an initiative of U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan -- goes smoothly.
Security analysts have criticised the ALP units, saying they risk adding more fuel to Afghanistan's decades-long conflict.
Some U.S. special forces advisers are so worried about perceptions turning into reality in Shah's village of Dey Gairow that no-one wants even to mention militias.
"Unlike other groups like this, there is a link between the ALP and the government that's been missing," says a U.S. special forces adviser who could not be named for security reasons.
The ALP's formation comes at a critical time for Afghanistan as the United States prepares to start pulling soldiers out of the country over the coming summer in a prelude to a full handover to Afghan security control by the end of 2014.
The new police are supposed to provide security for villagers who want to resist the Taliban, and U.S strategists hope they can plug a gap created by a shortage of regular police officers across the country.
Members are paid around 60 percent of the basic national police salary and receive three weeks' training, along with AK-47 rifles, vehicles, motorbikes and radios.
Almost 5,000 members have been recruited in 34 districts and there are plans for as many as 30,000 across the country. U.S. officials hope ALP membership will be a "bridge" to joining the better-equipped Afghan National Police in two or three years.
But security analysts have repeatedly raised fears that the local police units could lead to a repeat of the tribal militias that received covert U.S. backing to fight the 1979 Soviet invasion, before later turning on their own government.
They could also cloud the fledgling Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme, which encourages Taliban militants to stop fighting and reintegrate into normal life, especially if former insurgent fighters are permitted to join the ALP, the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network has warned.
But ALP national commander Ali Shah Ahmadzai says neither outcome is likely as ALP recruits are vetted and spoken for by their local village elders, and "shura" meetings take place every week to air any problems.
"You are the sons of your local people. Do not harass or torture your local people, respect your elders," Ahmadzai lectured Shah and other ALP recruits lined in ranks just metres from the mud walls of a U.S. special forces training base.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai reluctantly agreed last August, soon after Petraeus' arrival, to the formation of the ALP, which is overseen by the Afghan Interior ministry.
U.S. military officials insist they will be monitored closely given problems already occurring with ethnic militias in Afghanistan's north.
Adding to worries, there have been high-profile attacks on senior officials in Kabul and Kandahar in recent weeks by insurgents dressed in uniforms. The ALP add yet another layer to efforts to combat infiltration of the police and military.
U.S. soldiers say ALP have their biometrics scanned to aid identification and are also trained in "ethics, morals and values", along with rule of law and human rights.
But pointing to the need for caution, Shah and his comrades are already complaining they do not get enough money or weapons, with the Afghan National Police getting rocket-propelled grenades and more effective guns.
"We are not happy with the pay. Last year we got extra money from the American teams here then, but not this year," he says. That could give rise to ALP demanding money or gifts at district checkpoints - a frequent experience in Afghanistan.
Still, the new force has already proved effective against Taliban looking to move back into the Gizab district from the neighbouring Chora valley, with the last attempt now two months ago when a firefight erupted at a checkpoint.
"Our families are very proud. All our people are now feeling safer," says Shah. (Editing by Paul Tait)