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.
Sham Muqeem, Afghanistan — It took months to build the modest brick schoolhouse out here on the edge of these isolated flatlands, but only one night for militants to try to burn it down.
When Afghan police accompanied US police advisers to investigate the next day, they learned the attackers had succeeded only in temporarily sabotaging the project, tying up a handful of construction workers before burning the wooden window frames and a few wheelbarrows.
Moving around amid the charred steel and burned rubber, the local police attempted to interview witnesses inside the school's courtyard. But it was the US advisers working just outside the school who buttonholed the school principal to determine who might really have been responsible.
Such work is not the most sought-after assignment for American troops deployed to Afghanistan. But it has become a crucial one, as recognition emerges that the US has to step up the training of police as part of a broader effort to stabilize the country in the face of a resurgent Taliban.
Six years into the fight here, American and NATO forces say they have put the Afghan National Army on a track toward success. But the police – seen by some as more important to taming an insurgency – still lag far behind. Now coalition forces are trying to make up for lost time, and training the police has become a top priority.
The urgency of the task is felt by instructors here. The just-released annual US State Department report about the Taliban's impact, citing UN-compiled figures, said militants staged some 140 suicide bomb attacks this year that inflicted large civilian casualties. Militia groups that include the Taliban, the report stated, have begun to kidnap foreigners and target nongovernmental organizations, UN workers, and others.
The report also noted insurgents' attacks on schools, teachers, and students – especially girls. Indeed, American officials say two other schools near here were targeted in recent weeks.
"Our goal is to create independence," Maj. Mark Bidwell, a member of the Michigan National Guard who commands the embedded police advisory team that investigated the burned school, says later. "The challenge is giving them the confidence."
Image of corruption
Unlike the Army, in which the public has much confidence, the police have been seen as weak, ineffectual, and corrupt.
"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.
"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.
Early each morning, the Americans meet with local Afghan police, Army, and intelligence officials at the small base near here.
It's an opportunity for the US trainers improve understanding of how these three entities can coordinate, something that is critical if they are to strengthen the link between them and the local population.
Sitting around a table inside a yellow cement-block building, the men meet to discuss the previous day's events: what enemy activity was spotted, how effective local forces were in patrolling their area, what lessons have been learned.
At one such meeting last month, the Afghan police representative reported solemnly that everything was normal – no incidents to report. But American intelligence officials knew there had been a 45-minute firefight at a bridge nearby between Afghan police and enemy militias. One militia member may have been killed.
Lt. Col. Joel Price, who will be Bidwell's replacement, pushed the police representative for details the officer was disinclined to give.
Later, Colonel Price explained that the Afghans are still trying to shed the skin of a Soviet-model chain of command in which information was hoarded at the top and rarely shared with the bottom, where it was most needed. Afghan Army officers seem to understand this more instinctively, many officials say.
Now it's a matter of teaching the police at all levels that this information must be shared so that local militias don't get the upper hand.
Early in the mission under NATO, the German military had assumed primary responsibility for training the police, creating a comprehensive training academy for senior officers. The approach was premised on building a conventional force capable of conducting routine criminal investigations and traffic stops.
But to US officials and others, this didn't address the root cause of police corruption and malfeasance found at the bottom rungs.
That will take years to build. The US funds most of the training but shares the task with a handful of European nations. Kai Eide, the new special representative for Afghan reconstruction under the UN, said Monday that the US needed more assistance. "The US efforts are good, but I would still like the Europeans to do more," he said in Washington.
Corruption remains a central challenge and, some believe, requires nuanced expectations, like the broader effort of training forces here.
One American officer draws a distinction between a police commander who might steal in order to provide for the men under his command, and another commander, who might tip off the Taliban in advance of a particular coalition operation.
That kind of corruption, he insists, can't be tolerated.
"There is functional corruption," he says, "and then there is dysfunctional corruption." .