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Linchpin in Afghan security: a better police force

The US is stepping up police training to change a force that has a reputation among Afghans as corrupt and often ineffective.

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"They are thieves," gripes one taxi driver in Kabul. The police often lack weapons or proper training and don't always get paid on time. And until now, they have been a tactical afterthought in the web of competing efforts to make Afghanistan safer.

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"We owe them better than this," says Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, who heads the American command that oversees training and equipping of the security forces. "We owe them a fighting chance against the Taliban."

US officials, who took over most of the train-and-equip effort some two years ago, have tried to reinvigorate the police with new initiatives and a fatter budget to put them on par with the more capable Afghan Army. Many police ranks are now paid the same as Army soldiers, who had traditionally received more pay. Coalition troops, some of whom thought they would train the Army, are being diverted to mentor police. That includes a battalion of Marines who arrived in the south last month.

Back to police school

In an indication of the new commitment, one initiative aims to build the police force from the ground up by sending officers who are already trained back to school. Known as the "focused district development program," police are pulled from their provincial, district, and local police stations, revetted and retrained for several weeks, and then returned home. During the process, some lose their jobs, some are promoted, some are demoted, and still others are asked to retire.

The new program only has the capacity to work with a handful of Afghanistan's 364 districts at a time. Five districts are complete and another nine are under way. General Cone says that by 2010, he can have finished training 172 districts. "When you look at this pace and see all the issues and problems that you have, you have to start somewhere and say, 'I'm going to build this thing solid,' " says Cone.

But as advisers like Major Bidwell await that kind of formalized training, they are making do with what they have.

Bidwell arrived here 15 months ago and was told that he would lead a small team of embedded police advisers to help grow the provincial police force. With virtually no advance knowledge of what he was getting into, it became a pickup game. Bidwell soon learned how little the local population was connected to its government.

But recognizing that key to battling an insurgency is making that connection, Bidwell set about inventing the wheel. That meant turning a weak local police force into confident leaders who could enforce laws, help defeat enemies, and convince residents that the police are there to help them.

Bidwell's team created an ad hoc effort to give the police enough basic skills to get by. Local forces of 15 to 20 students are brought in to live at a small base for two weeks. They learn how to perform basic tactical patrols and engage an enemy.

And they have to learn how to shoot.

An Afghan told one American trainer he had had a fair amount of shooting practice, but the trainer had to laugh when he heard where it had been.

"It turned out he was shooting firearms at a wedding," says Spec. Justin Goggans, with the 82nd Airborne, Fort Bragg, N.C.

The Afghan police

Training and equipping budget


*2005: $200 million

2006: $1.2 billion

2007: $2.5 billion

* The US did not begin significant training and equipping until 2005.

Number of officers nationally

Trained and assigned: 42,000

Authorized goal: 82,000

Sample salaries

Lt. Gen.: $750 per month

Brig. Gen.: $550

Captain: $280

1st Lieutenant: $230

1st Sergeant: $190

1st Patrolman: $110

*Captains and below are on "pay parity" with the Afghan National Army, while majors through colonels are still awaiting rank reform.

Source: Command Security Transition Command-Afghanistan