Law lessons for Afghan police
Foreign governments turn eyes - and training - on police to stem corruption and violence.
Like most young Afghans, 18-year-old Zabibullah harbors a fierce distrust for his country's rag-tag police force.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"After 23 years of war here, everything is a mess in Afghanistan - especially the police," he says angrily. "Most of them just act like animals."
His attitude can hardly be unexpected in a country where police last month turned their guns on Kabul University students who were protesting squalid dorm conditions. Four students died and dozens were wounded.
What's surprising is that Zabibullah, who uses just one name, hopes one day to join the police ranks himself. He's one of 1,400 young cadets currently enrolled in the Kabul Police Academy, which reopened in August with help from German and Dutch funding after a 12-year hiatus. German police trainers are working with students - and their teachers - as part of a building effort to create a future police force the Afghan people can trust. Other European nations are training existing Afghan police in narcotics control, disaster response, customs, and border patrol. The US is funding a 5-year, $26 million program to give cops in the provinces a crash course in human rights and nonviolent responses to crime.
And countries around the world are contributing to a massive World Bank-monitored Law and Order Trust Fund, which doles out salaries for police, many of whom hadn't been paid in months.
All together, it's a huge step for a country where more than half of the estimated 75,000 police are conscripts and virtually none have had formal training. Under the Taliban regime, the Religious Police terrorized ordinary people with edicts forcing men to grow beards and pray five times daily, and banning women from associating with men who were not relatives.
Against this backdrop, foreign officials say the Nov. 11 student shooting underlined the urgency of police reform in Afghanistan, which they argue is as essential to the country's future stability as creating a national army - a cause that has gotten far more international attention.
Yet the incident at Kabul University also highlights the tremendous challenges they face. Police sent to quell the rioting students had neither shields nor helmets to protect themselves - nor even radios to receive orders from commanding officers. Senior police officials later claimed Taliban elements incited the students to the deadly confrontation with police, a charge students flatly rejected. Other rumors put the violence down to warlords who wanted to destabilize the fragile Kabul government.
Numbers are also a problem: Observers say many, if not most, provincial leaders hugely inflate the number of police they pay each month, so as to receive more from the Law and Order Trust Fund. Surveys by foreign investigators indicate many provinces actually have half the number of police they need, only a handful of vehicles, and no system of communication with the federal center.
Moreover, low-level cops aren't getting paid much. Few of the estimated 40,000 conscripts even earn salaries. Trained police make about $24 a month, and police generals officially draw roughly twice that. Yet in bigger cities, beefy police chiefs flash through town in Land Cruiser convoys. Many own more than one home.
To make ends meet, bribe-taking, thievery, and violence are rampant among low-level police, ordinary Afghans and foreign officials working on the reform project say. Most simply use their Kalashnikovs to enforce what they believe is the law, or to take what they want. "It's really a wild bunch," says a foreign official working on police reform, "I would be quite scared to be arrested by a conscript."
What's worse, the official adds, is that foreign governments have no alternative but to work with senior police officials they know to be corrupt since there isn't enough time to properly train an entirely new force and because disrupting the delicate political balance in Afghanistan's volatile provinces would almost certainly draw a hostile response.
With students marching smartly through the fields while construction workers scuttle over rooftops of soon-to-be-completed dormitories, the German-run police academy in Kabul looks like the model of efficiency many hope Afghanistan's police force will one day emulate.
But that seems a distant future, critics say - especially since the US-funded course, set to begin early this year, will give provincial cops less than two months of full-time training. Similar projects in postconflict zones like Bosnia started with better-trained troops; in countries like Cambodia with similar levels of education, training programs lasted months longer.
Many police trainers say it will take many millions of dollars more than are already dedicated to enact real reforms. "We are trying to teach police how to talk to people, instead of using guns," says General Mohammed Daoud Askayar, director of the Kabul Police Academy. "But this will take time. For now, we are just trying to teach them to control their tempers."