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Afghans fight flow of drugs and guns fueling Taliban insurgency

But only 200 officers in the south have been trained so far in a US-led program to stem trafficking in and out of Pakistan.

By P.J. TobiaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2009

Afghans – here at a base in Spin Boldak in the south – are being trained in a US-led program to guard the porous border with Pakistan.

PJ Tobia

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Spin Boldak, Afghanistan

In Southern Afghanistan, long ground zero in the battle against the Taliban, Western forces are adjusting their tactics by turning fresh attention to the region's border with Pakistan.

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Every day, more than 25,000 people cross an 800-mile boundary skirting Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, and Zabul Provinces. Some of these commuters feed the insurgency by smuggling weapons and Taliban fighters into Afghanistan, or by bringing out drugs that fund the rebels' activities.

Now, the United States is trying to build up the region's border police responsible for stopping the trafficking – a force still in its professional infancy.

So far, only a fraction of Afghan Border Police (ABP) officers here have been formally trained, with many more units set to complete the program in the coming months.

The American commanders overseeing the program acknowledge that corrupt and unprofessional behavior among border guards in the south is widespread, but insist that with more resources, training, and time, things will improve.

Last month, 200 ABP officers graduated from the six-week training program – the second group in the south to complete this training, out of a total of about 3,200 ABP officers.

A US Army spokesman says that they hope to bring the number of ABP on the southern border to just over 4,400 men.

Keeping the bombs out

Though the agency has a long way to go before reaching that goal – and becoming corruption-free – the training has started to yield results.

The first group to graduate from the program recently stopped two trucks attempting to cross into Afghanistan that were loaded with detonation wires and blasting caps, two main ingredients in the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that insurgents commonly use to target Western forces.

According to the Afghan police official in charge of that investigation, the trucks' occupants were arrested and the vehicles seized, though the company's owners were not charged.

Many border police are recruited from the regular Afghan National Police, but it's hard to attract the best training officers due to a pay differential: Border police trainers earn less than their district police counterparts, though the officers in the field make equivalent salaries. The work is also arguably more dangerous than district policing.

"These guys are out in the middle of nowhere in small teams," says US Army Col. Bill Hix, who commands coalition troops responsible for training Afghan security forces in southern Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Saifullah Hakim, who oversees the southern ABP program from a base in Spin Boldak, near Kandahar, says that one consequence of the added danger and pay differential is that much of his force is poorly educated, even illiterate.