PANKELA, Afghanistan (Reuters) - As British troops moved into the village newly freed from Taliban control, they heard one message from the anxious locals: for God's sake do not bring back the Afghan police.
U.S. and British troops have launched a campaign to seize control of Helmand province, about half of which was in Taliban hands, and restore Afghan government institutions.
But as they advance, they are learning uncomfortable facts about their local allies: villagers say the government's police force was so brutal and corrupt that they welcomed the Taliban as liberators.
"The police would stop people driving on motorcycles, beat them and take their money," said Mohammad Gul, an elder in the village of Pankela, which British troops have been securing for the past three days after flying in by helicopter.
He pointed to two compounds of neighbours where pre-teen children had been abducted by police to be used for the local practice of "bachabazi," or sex with pre-pubescent boys.
"If the boys were out in the fields, the police would come and rape them," he said. "You can go to any police base and you will see these boys. They hold them until they are finished with them and then let the child go."
The Interior Ministry in Kabul said it would contact police commanders in the area before responding in detail.
When the Taliban arrived in the village 10 months ago and drove the police out, local people rejoiced, said Mohammad Rasul, a toothless elderly farmer who keeps a few cows and chickens in a neatly tended orchard of pomegranate trees, figs and grape vines.
Although his own son was killed by a Taliban roadside bomb five years ago, Rasul said the fighters earned their welcome in the village by treating people with respect.
"We were happy (after the Taliban arrived). The Taliban never bothered us," he said.
Before the Taliban arrived, the police had come to his house with a powerful landlord he called a "tyrant," who put a rifle in his face, searched through his compound and demanded money.
"If (the British) bring these people back, we can't live here. If they come back, I am sure they will burn everything," Rasul said.
The British effort, Operation Panther's Claw, has focussed on the Babaji district north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, an area of lush fields, vineyards and orchards, watered by carefully tended streams and canals fed by the Helmand river.
Taliban fighters have sown the area with homemade mines and sniper nests, inflicting the worst casualties of the war. At least 15 British soldiers have been killed in the past 12 days.
Further south, some 4,000 U.S. Marines have met less resistance after seizing three districts of the lower Helmand River valley in an air and ground assault.
The aim is to impose Afghan government control over most of the province in time for an August 20 presidential poll.
But commanders say holding the area for the longer term will depend on bringing in credible local security forces.
The United States has spent lavishly in the past eight years to build up the Afghan National Army (ANA).
But it left training the Afghan National Police (ANP) to Germany, which spent a fraction as much, sending a small number of civilian instructors.
The result is a police force that is widely acknowledged to be unprepared for work in a combat zone: the ANP suffered three times as many deaths as the ANA last year.
Washington is rushing to make up the gap, sending 4,000 military trainers to Afghanistan this year to focus mainly on professionalising the police.
Entire police forces are being removed from districts and sent to remote locations for intensive eight-week training.
Major Al Steele, commander of Bravo Company of 3 SCOTS, the Black Watch, who met elders in Pankela, acknowledged their concerns but said foreign forces were working on it.
"We have heard a lot of complaints about the ANP, but the Coalition Forces and the ANA are working together well, and the ANP are getting better," he told Gul Mohammad, squatting outside the elder's mud-walled compound.
The elder shrugged and flipped his prayer beads.
"Every time we heard that new ANP would come. But the old ANP would come back and it would be just like in the past."
"The people here trust the Taliban," he said. "If the police come back and behave the same way, we will support the Taliban to drive them out."