A long way to the exit: Training the Afghan police force
Published Wednesday, December 16, 2009 5:01PM EST
KANDAHAR - The Afghan police commander pulled back the bolt of the worn Kalashnikov, and as his eyes wandered for approval he squeezed the trigger.
There was no bang, which meant the barrel of the gun was clear. And that was the point of the exercise. The commander nodded once at his expertise and smiled. So why was U.S. Army Sergeant Michael Crowley frowning?
'That's an AK47,' Crowley said in a measured voice to the commander, 'The barrel was pointing at another ANP.'
As the interpreter translated, the commander turned his eyes to the ground and fumbled to swing the rifle onto his shoulder as Crowley, his mentor, stood by and shook his head.
That an Afghan police officer would shoot another by accident is not so far-fetched. In fact, it happens a lot. Officers wind up in hospitals with bullets in their feet, stomachs, shoulders, or worse, according to reports of a private security company that keeps track of this sort of thing.
Yet in the bigger universe of its offences, the Afghan National Police have a track record for doing much worse than wounding themselves. Afghans have long regarded the ANP as a hapless force populated by thugs and thieves more intent on extorting the public than protecting it.
'It should be... just like back home,' says Tony Manolakos, a Montreal SWAT officer who is training ANP recruits in Kandahar. 'People call 9-1-1 if something happens because they trust the police. Here they don't trust the police.'
Why are the ANP so... bad? A lot can be linked to years of corruption at levels higher than the average policeman, who would often go unpaid for months because his boss was pocketing the money. It fueled a culture of armed entitlement where police taxed, robbed, and extorted salaries with arbitrary checkpoints or simple intimidation.
Kandahar is also a place where tribal divisions run deep. For decades, powerful tribes grew their own private militia and at the end of Taliban rule in 2001 most of them were incorporated into the Afghan National Security Forces.
A recent report from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggests, 'Had these militias been thoroughly reformed, disciplined, and been directed to serve the interests of the people of Kandahar rather than the interests of the strongmen who led them, they could have been an effective way to provide security for Kandahar.'
Today, there is little doubt the ANP is the weakest link in the Afghan security chain. The challenge is that they are also a critical part of a reformed counterinsurgency plan for NATO allies to one day get out of Afghanistan. The ANP matters because police are the first point of contact with the public, and in this war according to an American diplomat, "people are the prize."
The U.S. wants to double the number of ANP across Afghanistan -- to 160,000 -- in four years. Training has been cut to six weeks to swell the ranks, and that push is breeding a force that is often unqualified, undisciplined, and ill-equipped.
In Kandahar City, the task falls to a team of American military police from the 97th Battalion and a team of Canadian civilians.
In a recent quarterly report to Parliament, the Canadian government admitted that only one of 17 police units in Kandahar was able to properly plan and carry out an operation. Illiteracy is a problem. Drug use is rampant; recruits routinely fail tests for narcotics.
'We showed up and only four of 42 officers were in uniform,' said a Canadian trainer of a recent visit to the police station in one of Kandahar City's worst districts, "and we had to confiscate all of their dope."
ANP are also notorious for selling their weapons, ammunition, boots, and fuel. Their uniforms are drawing a good price these days because they are reputedly warm.
Slowly, trainers are trying to instill a need for structure and procedure. It is a frustrating venture. On an unannounced visit to a police station, mentors waited nearly 40 minutes for the commander to muster seven officers in a line. Two were in street clothes. One officer with his belt undone and undershirt exposed eased out of the compound's main building and disappeared in the opposite direction.
Most units do street patrols but they cannot move at will in all parts of the city. Mentors have told them they have to occasionally shake hands with people. If the ANP is able to nurture a degree of trust, Afghans are more likely to report Taliban activity, weapons caches, or anything untoward in their neighbourhoods. Security forces can then act on that information and work effectively to extract insurgents from the population. That kind of support, for example, might have helped the commander of Police Station 1 understand how the Taliban recently got an anti-aircraft gun into his district.
If that is how it's supposed to work in theory, it seems there is a long way to go because the American and Canadian trainers admit they do not trust all of the men they are training.
"Do I trust all of them? No. Some I don't trust," said Manolakos, the Canadian. An American mentor said without hesitation, "I don't trust any of them."
The Taliban is said to have long infiltrated the Afghan National Security Forces -- both police and army. ANSF weaponry and ammunition have been recovered from Taliban stockpiles. And in November, an ANP officer who had been with the force two years opened fire on his British mentors at a checkpoint in Helmand, killing five soldiers and injuring eight others. After he fled, it was reported that he was hiding with the Taliban in another part of the country.
There are hints of progress. Some ANP units are partnering with Afghan National Army units and agents from NDS (Afghanistan's intelligence service) to raid Taliban safe houses and bomb-making facilities. In the coming months there are likely to be more joint operations, some involving Canadian units as backup or support.
"We need to move," said Brig.Gen. Daniel Menard, the commander of Canadian Forces in Kandahar, "the next year is extremely important."
Afghan police have long been targets for an especially ruthless brand of Taliban violence. Officers have been shot, blown up, beheaded, and in one rural district, conned into entering a house where they were drugged and had their throats slit.
Recruiting the willing and the capable is therefore a huge challenge. Pay is improving and perhaps a degree of professionalism can follow. For now, most officers are said to fear patrolling without their mentors at night.