By Mirwais Harooni
CHAR DARAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Fahima had just arrived home from school when members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a U.S.-trained militia charged with making Afghans in Taliban strongholds feel more secure, started hammering on the front door searching for her father.
They elbowed it open and, frustrated at not finding him, started beating her younger brother, prompting 17-year-old Fahima to intervene. One of the men turned and shot her dead.
"She was in her first days as an eleventh grade student," said Fahima's father, Khuja, who believes the killing was score settling over an old land dispute.
"Offenders are still serving as local policemen and they are free. Police say the killer has escaped but he's walking in public with his gun and no one is able to catch him."
The ALP was set up in 2010 in villages where the national force is weak, a flagship project of U.S. General David Petraeus, who stepped down as commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan in 2011.
The government began recruiting everyone from farmers to shopkeepers for the militia, hoping to take the edge away from the Taliban in their rural bastions.
American officials have hailed the ALP as an effective homegrown force which has restricted the ability of the Taliban to move in the countryside.
In northern Kunduz province's Char Darah district, a Taliban stronghold until recently, people credit the ALP for making it safer to travel and send children to school against frequent insurgent opposition to education, especially for girls.
"The Taliban here were demanding money from local people, beating them if they refused. Now we don't let them do it," said Gul Ahmad, an ALP commander in Sarak Bala village.
But security gains made by the now 20,000-strong militia are often overshadowed by mounting accusations of abuses, including rape and murder.
Human rights groups say ALP members sometimes act like warlords, demanding bribes, skimming contracts and committing the kind of atrocities that rattled Afghanistan in a civil war that killed 50,000 people before the Taliban took over in 1996.
Afghans already have enough to worry about. Many fear the United States and other Western allies will abandon Afghanistan after 2014, when most NATO combat troops will have gone, leaving them at the mercy of the Taliban. There is widespread talk of another civil war.
The ALP was supposed to ease public anxiety, not fuel it.
UNIFORMS, A SALARY, BUT LITTLE DISCIPLINE
Duties range from manning checkpoints and running patrols to providing security forces with intelligence on insurgents. Each member gets a monthly salary and food worth about $180 and are issued brown uniforms and an AK-47 rifle.
Some acquire heavier weapons like machineguns or rocket-propelled grenades on their own and prefer the traditional flowing shirt and baggy trousers to mix in with the population in farming villages with mudbrick homes.
Many complain they are underpaid and have to borrow or steal from the poor locals they are meant to protect.
"My father works as a farmer and I have to help him live. If I don't get enough money then I'll have an eye on other local people's pockets," said Lutfullah, 28.
Their pasts often don't inspire confidence either. Rights groups say some were former Taliban fighters or members of militias that wreaked havoc in Afghanistan for decades. There are reports of the ALP joining the Taliban.
"Some of them are guilty of repeated killings," said Hussain Ali Moin, coordinator for the Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
More than 100 ALP members have been jailed for crimes including murder, bombings, rapes, beatings and robbery, according to chief military prosecutor Mohammad Rahim Hanifi.
In one of the most high-profile cases, an ALP commander and four of his men entered a house in Kunduz province, assaulted a family and abducted their 18-year-old daughter, Lal Bibi, in May.
She told her family she was chained to a wall and repeatedly raped before being brought home a week later.
"She says if she does not get justice she will set herself on fire," her 56-year-old father, Hajji Rustam, told Reuters.
The trauma was so severe, it made him long for the days when rapists were publicly stoned to death or flogged under Taliban rule.
"The Taliban were better than the ALP," he said. "At least they respected our honor. They opposed only women's activities in public, but these people assault us in our homes."
The problems may multiply, with plans to boost the force to 30,000 and make it operational over most of the country.
Some of the attacks allegedly committed by the ALP also seem to be motivated by sectarian rivalries, which could complicate efforts to tame the force.
In southern Uruzgan province, an ALP commander belonging to the Hazara minority ethnic group in late July gunned down 15 Pashtun civilians in Khas Uruzgan, a day after the Pashtun Taliban killed two of his friends, officials said.
"Commander Abdul Hakim Shujahi took nine villagers out of their houses and took them to the Matakzai area of the village and killed them with stones and gunshots," said Mohammad Waris Faizi, who heads the Independent Human Rights Commission investigation office in the province.
"Then he and his people arrested six villagers from the Khak Afghan area and killed them too," Faizi said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi denied troubles were widespread and said the ALP was making serious sacrifices for Afghanistan, accounting for more than half of all casualties among anti-insurgent forces.
"They are very useful, to be honest, and very effective. They are inflicting big losses on the Taliban," he said.
In order to improve the ALP's image, authorities say they are stepping up vetting beyond word of mouth from local leaders, governors, intelligence and police chiefs, and turning to biometric data.
"If there are any criminals, we can track them and we can find them," Seddiqi said.
But those efforts have not calmed Afghans.
"The Taliban and ALP are active during the night," said villager Najibullah Khairkhwah, 33. "Both can shoot you, rob you. So I prefer not to leave my house."
(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in KABUL; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Nick Macfie)