Col. Muhammad Hussein could not hide his frustration with the new recruits.
It was the penultimate day of a 10-day training crash course for a rag-tag batch of auxiliary police. The fledgling Afghan government needs the new recruits to enforce the law amid a mounting guerrilla insurgency, and the men were far from ready for the mean streets of this former Taliban capital.
Colonel Hussein barked at one young man for not keeping his red simulation weapon trained on a suspect vehicle during a search exercise. But training difficulties were only half of the problem. Today, Hussein says, there is no guarantee the cash-strapped state will be able to replace the recruit's fake gun with a real one.
"The real threat is now against [the police]," says Hekmat Karzai, head of the Kabul-based Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, which focuses on security and terrorism analysis. "Strategically, it makes sense to attack Afghan security forces where morally it gives people a complex about whether it is worth joining."
The growing strength of the Afghan National Army, which has inflicted heavy casualties against the Taliban this year with robust NATO support and improved training and equipment, has prompted a resurgent Taliban to target the poorly equipped police officers, who each receive only slightly more than half a soldier's pay.
Meanwhile, the lack of funds has left the police virtually empty-handed in the fight against guerrillas armed with heavy weapons such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, says Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary.
The Taliban's hit-and-run tactics have killed more than 300 police in the last three months, according to the Interior Ministry, making this the worst year ever for police casualties.
"What the police have to face them [with] are AK-47s, and, at the maximum, PKMs. That's it," Mr. Bashary opined, referring to a higher-caliber Soviet-made machine gun.
Critical posts in areas beyond the reach of multinational forces are harder to fill as a result, while many wearing a badge engage in graft and other criminal activities to make ends meet, eroding public faith.
In some districts with more than 100,000 people, there are just 25 to 30 police stretched thin by daily law enforcement demands – battling insurgents when necessary and lending a hand in drug eradication, something that makes them easy targets, say Afghan officials.
In what amounted to both a literal and symbolic blow to state authority, the June 17 bus bombing in the capital – the deadliest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 – left at least 35 people dead on the doorstep of police headquarters – most of them police trainees.
In the span of one week earlier this month, a Taliban ambush in southern Zabul Province left 16 officers dead; a district police chief in eastern Paktika Province was killed when a roadside bomb exploded his vehicle; and militants attacked another officer's house in southern Ghazni Province and killed five members of his family, indicating the threat to relatives or those who cooperate with the police. Many officers have reported finding it difficult to return to their home villages because their police work has marked them as government sympathizers.
"Police working in remote places are in trouble. The ones here cannot feed their family or help themselves either," Hussein says, noting that the paltry $70 monthly wage policemen are supposed to earn is often $10 less once it passes through the bureaucracy. "A bag of flour costs nearly [$35]. How can we solve any problem with this?"
Such dire circumstances have the inevitable backlash of fueling drug-related corruption and predatory tendencies among police forces. The World Bank says low-paying police chief posts are bought and sold in bidding wars that allow the holder to tax poppy farmers and drug traffickers. In these situations, farmers who can't afford to pay bribes must often see their crops destroyed.
To compensate, some provinces have seen the formation of traditional tribal policing systems. The Ghazni provincial police chief, for example, has said he could summon at least 500 militiamen to combat insurgents if needed; similar claims have been made by community leaders in other troubled provinces.
The government is also establishing a 5,000-man reserve force known as the Afghan National Civil Order Police. It will be deployed to central provinces where it can provide "quick-response support wherever regular police are attacked," says Bashary, adding that the first 300 recruits have arrived in Kabul for the final phase of training. "They will go in and pound the enemy, and then withdraw."
Adding to that, the European Union has taken over police training duties from Germany, dispatching 60 advisers to restive districts to improve capabilities, with another 100 on their way. More are expected to arrive as the Afghan government seeks to boost police forces by 20,000 men from the current level of about 62,000 over the next couple of years, the spokesman said.
The United States, for its part, is providing armored vehicles resistant to mines and attacks from improvised exposive devices, and Afghan officials are optimistic that a large slice of the $8 billion security package Congress approved earlier this year will be spent on police reform.
"All of the international community now understands that the police are the main factor for security and stability in the provinces," says Bashary. "They are directly engaged on the front lines … and should at least be paid equal to the Army, since they are doing very much more."
Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, head of the Combined Security Transition Command, which is tasked with carrying out police reform, says he expects salaries to be raised to Army level within a month. To address internal problems, police have also set up their own system for investigating corruption in the ranks, including a toll-free number installed three months ago that has reportedly received dozens of complaint calls on matters ranging from pay distribution to mistreatment at the hands of superiors.
So in the meantime, what are the incentives to wear a uniform?
"We love our country and are working almost without salary," says Ahmed Haidari, a soon-to-be graduate from the Kabul Police Academy. "Our country has known war for many years, and we will not back down now from the Taliban."
But, he adds, "If I get married, I might have to find a different job. Women and children are expensive."