Men hurried through the dark with a stretcher, flares burst, and a helicopter thumped in to the forward operating base in southern Afghanistan. The evacuation was evidence of slick professionalism. But the casualty – a young Afghan policeman who had apparently overdosed on drugs – was an illustration of the immense difficulties facing NATO as it prepares Afghan National Security Forces to take responsibility for their country.
Handing over security to the Afghan government, as per the Lisbon summit two weeks ago, is an uphill task. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen want to finish transferring security by the end of 2014. Yet there are too few NATO trainers, too many Afghan deserters, and too much corruption, NATO officials and Western diplomats say, to make that a credible scenario.
A recent review commissioned by the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, the body responsible for strengthening the Afghan security forces, found that most Afghan police “did not know the law they were responsible to enforce," that the training mission was critically understaffed and that most ordinary Afghans see the police as a predatory militia “rather than trusted law enforcement officials.” Drug addiction and illiteracy are also problems.
"All these factors make it difficult to recruit people and train them,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a well-respected think tank in Kabul. “Already the timeline of handover by 2014 makes it hard enough to meet the target figures,” which call in the short term for the 115,500-man police force to hit 134,000 officers by October next year and the Army to reach 176,600.
“I would be skeptical whether it’s possible,” Mr. Ruttig says. “Vetting has never been very good of policemen and the feeling is that the criteria have been lowered,” he says.
What's needed, he says, is more time for training programs: "If we rush it, we risk missing the target we set for ourselves."
There are bigger failings within Afghanistan’s security forces, too. On Monday, a man in police uniform killed six US Army soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. Here in Sangin, in the southwestern province of Helmand, a member of the Afghan National Army is suspected of shooting two US Marines in early November and fleeing into the night. The event is still under investigation although the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the gunman was a plant.
NATO characterized both incidents as the actions of a “rogue” individual and Afghan military leaders expressed shock and embarrassment at the killings in Sangin, according to US Marine Maj. John Bobo, a military adviser. But there have been at least four other shootings in the past 13 months.
Meanwhile, US trainers – proud of the improvements they say they've seen by many of their charges in the Afghan National Army or Afghan Uniformed Police – say that incidents such as the drug overdose are the exception to the rule. “It’s just a small handful,” says US Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jens Orsen, a police adviser. “We really have to weigh our options: Do we take action on someone smoking weed and … just lose five people that otherwise do their jobs well and contribute out there?”
“They operate well, they know what to do… we’re really trying to get these guys to operate a little more independently,” Orsen continues. “They’re biggest shortfalls are accountability and some of their gear… my biggest heartache is trying to develop their leadership," he says.
What happens in Sangin, the setting for some of the insurgency’s fiercest fighting, has now become the focus of trainers in southwestern Afghanistan. "The police are the first-line offense against the insurgency," says Col. Robert Golden, the US official overseeing the training program in the region. "If we can have a strong police presence in the districts, they can do a very good job of separating the population from the insurgency and protecting the population."