They are a secret tribal militia, the controversial creation of US commanders in Afghanistan eager to buttress local opposition to the Taliban. So clandestine are the units formed to protect villages in a critical valley in southern Afghanistan that US officials and special forces commanders in Kabul refuse to discuss them.
But the Guardian has learned that in one important regard, the Local Defence Initiative forces are not so secretive after all. As they patrol villages close to the key southern city of Kandahar, the fighters are being forced to wear bright yellow reflector belts so that their special forces mentors do not mistake them for Taliban.
The garish sashes were introduced to distinguish the non-uniformed militias from an enemy who favour the same traditional Afghan garb and AK-47 slung over the shoulder.
Mindful that the belts could become valuable currency in a conflict where camouflage are standard tactics, officers count them out and count them back in at the end of each day.
Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Amanullah Rahmani, an Afghan army sergeant working in the area, said it was a mistake to set up such forces. “This is an American idea but I fear the Taliban will take advantage of it. They can get some guns ... saying they are the militia.”
Because of the intense controversy about such informal police forces very little is known about the LDI. US officials privately reject comparisons with previous militias that have gone on to plague the country.
Major Joseph Brannon, the commanding officer of US regular troops, said the programme had shown some signs of success in Nagahan but was struggling in the village of Adirah, where allegiances are split between several tribes and the “eldest elder” appeared to be favourably disposed to the Taliban.