Behind one nondescript front door after another, Afghan police backed up by US and Afghan Army soldiers search for weapons, demonstrating a police presence they hope will weaken the grip of militants in this corner of southeast Afghanistan.
In mud-walled compounds, they find an assault rifle hidden in a haystack, ancient single-shot weapons from past Afghan wars, and a half-filled box of Soviet ammunition, pried open like a tin of sardines.
But in one living room, a determined Afghan policeman points to the lock on a trunk, ready to break it. The owner says there are no guns inside, just wedding items – and someone else has the key.
The Afghans make a decision aimed at winning a friend, not creating a new enemy. "The commander is a good man. He's not going to break the lock," US Army Maj. Craig Blando tells the home–owner. "Remember how fair and honest the police were."
"Sometimes it's better to build goodwill," explains Major Blando, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who heads a team of US soldiers working alongside Afghan police units meant to take on permanent security duties here. "That's what we're fighting [for], to get the people to start believing in the police."
Until now, that would have been a leap of faith, in a country where nascent security forces – and local Afghans seen to collaborate with them – are often targeted by Taliban-led insurgents. And despite some progress, key questions remain about the ability of police to hold the line, dogged as they are by meager ranks, corruption, and lower pay than that for Army recruits – not to mention less armor and firepower. Just as in Iraq, US and Afghan commanders say, successful local forces are a prerequisite for US withdrawal.
Monthly police salaries have just been raised to match those of Army soldiers, from $70 to $100, but inequalities rankle. Far more are on payrolls than show up for work. Infighting continues between the police and Army, as Afghan commanders still debate each force's role in fighting "terrorists."
"These people work with the Taliban 90 percent; only 10 percent are willing to work with the government," says 1st Lt. Taj Gul, an officer of the Afghan National Police (ANP) who carries a pistol while his unit knocks on doors in the farming village of Chawni. "They need to use their weapons to keep order, not to undermine it."
In this sweep, the weapons haul collected over two days was small, Afghan officers complained, because a US psychological operations unit broadcast advance warning about the searches. But the real aim was to push out militants and show a government presence – a key step in the US counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan.
"One of the things we are trying to do is allow the Afghans to lead as much as possible from the front, with us mentoring," says Maj. Steve Boesen, who works alongside Afghan troops. "So at some point we can pull out, and they can sustain themselves."
Lack of trust among local Afghans
Police commanders are counting on recruiting drives and hearts-and-minds missions likeOperation Khyber, which targeted three districts of Paktia Province, to bolster their ranks and reputations. The eight police in Swak district are meant to number 50; local elders have volunteered 13 auxiliaries for training and duties.
"The [local] people were under the control of the enemy," says Col. Abdul Wahab, the gray-bearded commander of the Paktia police Quick Reaction Force. "When they see the training, and the auxiliary police coming back with jobs, we hope it will cause others to come."
But the work is risky. Last year three of the colonel's policemen were killed. And already this year he has lost six men – four of them to a sophisticated ambush. Nationally, the interior ministry in Kabul stated earlier this month that more than 500 police lost their lives in the previous five months.
One aim of Khyber was to increase confidence so local Afghans "will trust us … and they will see that the government of Afghanistan is trying to support the people," says Colonel Wahab of the operation that ended last week.
But nearly six years after the fall of the Taliban, senior commanders of both the police and army are still debating their roles. A directive from the Ministry of Interior last year gave latitude for both forces to "wage war" against militants, but the dispute spilled over into a recent regional security meeting in Gardez.
Operation Khyber was a "success," Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq, the 203rd Corps commander of the Afghan National Army (ANA), told US and Afghan officers who were present. "But unfortunately, the ANP is not able to take over and keep those achievements." Police officers are reluctant to accept jobs in Paktia, he said, "because they know they will be killed."
In six months, 52 of his soldiers died in attacks, with more than 100 wounded and many vehicles lost, General Khaliq said. "And still there is no sign of the ANP. I don't want the police to go alone, [but] in a place where there should be 40 ANP, you can't find more than five."
The regional police commander complains that his men are spread too thin and obliged to both catch criminals and "fight against terrorists," though with far fewer privileges than the Army.
"The ANP do not have the [protective] gear, but they are not fighting in the same trenches as the ANA," said police Maj. Gen. Abdul Fatah Farogh.
US soldiers embedded as mentors with Afghan police units say they see slow but steady progress – and often more hope than among similar units in Iraq. The Afghan police recruits "are good guys, but they are poorly trained, poorly fed, and poorly paid," says US Army Sgt. Willie Davis of Dillon, S.C.
"It's an uphill battle," says Sgt. First Class Jeff Bailey of Syracuse, N.Y., noting that while the police rarely get a cold reception during searches, the "noticeable lack of military-aged males when we roll in" reflects distrust of the units.
Afghan police often overhear radio chatter and have spoken directly to insurgents, asking them to come down from the mountains to "talk," says Sgt. Bailey. Once the insurgents taunted in reply: "We'll send down suicide bombers."
The episode shows one challenge to the budding police force. "You come here and spend money in the daytime," a storekeeper told Spc. Stephen Myers of Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he was patrolling with Afghan police. "The Taliban come and spend money at night."
Signs of Taliban in their midst
And militants are not always up in the mountains, if the hunch of Afghan officers conducting searches in Chawni is any measure. One house exhibited steel beams in the roof, brick walls, a porcelain sink in the hall, tinted windows and electricity – all uncommon in these poor parts, raising police suspicions.
Qomandan, a young man who wore a flashy, kitschy gold watch, said 45 people lived here; five brothers' families.
"We would appreciate if you would help the police in this area," Blando told him. "Yes," the man replied. "They have hard work in this area."
But the Afghan police didn't buy it. Hours later, they drove by the compound's ornate metal front door shouting "Taliban! Taliban!" to each other, knowingly.