Policing Afghanistan

Both the killing Wednesday morning of Afghanistan's deputy security chief and a new report from Afghanistan's top U.S. commander testify to the country's deteriorating security situation. Our correspondent explains why things won't improve without more support for the Afghan police.

In the scorching heat of a June afternoon, Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan policeman in his mid-thirties, sits on the roof of a remote police checkpoint in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. A makeshift screen, fashioned from the hood of a rusty farm tractor shields him from the sun. Nearby rests a battered AK-47. Immediately by his side is an old Sanyo radio, playing Pashto songs. “This is my best friend,” he says of the radio, pulling it onto his lap. “When my conversation with the bullets is over, he is the one I can speak to.” Dozens of dead, muddy batteries at his feet testify to the radio’s longstanding service. As he rotates the radio’s broken knob, he speculates that the Taliban­ could be preparing to attack that very evening.

Abdullah and his fellow policemen are always wary about the possibility of Taliban attacks on their checkpoints. Without adequate resources or manpower, such installations have become prime Taliban targets. Just that morning, Taliban fighters stormed a post about six miles north of Lashkar Gah, killing eight policemen.

When some members of the police were reported missing following the attack, Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the provincial administration, suggested that some of them may have had ties with the Taliban – raising suspicions about the internal integrity of the force itself. Abdullah says there are indeed some corrupt policemen who engage in heinous acts, but he insists that he and his comrades are willing to fight the Taliban to the end. His only wish is that the police were better paid and protected by the government.

Melons and Naps

Without a doubt, eventual success in Afghanistan will rest on a foundation of robust security, safeguarded by the police. But the vast majority of the police force today complains about paltry salaries and a complete lack of benefits. The lucky ones get a uniform, a grey shirt and a pair of cotton or polyester slacks, along with slightly advanced machine guns. Others carry rusty old AK-47s across their chests and wait for the Taliban in their Pathani salwaars. Even during patrols, it is not rare to find a policeman running in his sandals.

Unlike most police forces, Afghanistan’s 77,000-strong national police deals less with civilian law and order, and more with an insurgency that has engulfed most of the southern part of the country and the tribal areas bordering Pakistan. From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, the policemen contend with one of the most fanatical and militant groups in recent history—all for a monthly salary of around $110 (about 7,000 Afghanis). While this is an improvement over the average monthly Afghan income of $25, it is nearly two and a half times less than that earned by the Afghan National Army (whose training is admittedly more rigorous, and whose missions are considered more involved than the routine but dangerous patrols carried out by the police). In light of this, one might imagine that everyone would simply sign up for the army instead of the police, but the army has quotas, which makes it more difficult to get into.

Given the widespread discontent about the rate of pay, it’s not surprising that the police force is rife with corruption and bribe-taking. Talk with any taxi driver or farmer in Lashkar Gah, and you’ll hear stories about police shakedowns. One farmer from the nearby town of Gereshk, who was transporting his wheat harvest to Lashkar Gah, said that a police officer had taken 1,000 Afghanis from him the previous week. “They will search your pockets and take money and valuables from you,” he said, “and you can’t say anything because you know you will have to deal with them again the next day.”

Members of the British Army’s Police Mentoring Team, who have been teaching specialist policing skills as well as basic infantry techniques to the Afghans since March 2009, are frustrated by this kind of behavior. One police mentor recalled a recent morning at a checkpoint when a young Afghan police officer stopped a tractor transporting watermelons and wheat. A second officer ransacked the driver’s pockets, asking him to turn around several times, while the first officer whispered into the ears of a farmer sitting on the tractor. The farmer eventually handed over four watermelons before the tractor drove away. When the British officer asked the policeman if he had paid the farmer for those watermelons, his question was met with a brief pause, a smile, and the inevitable reply: “That was my cousin’s tractor, he gave me those in goodwill.” That has become a typical response, according to the British officer. “One thing you cannot let these policemen do is extort the locals,” he said. “No wonder they lose their trust.”

Another problem is laziness. Some policemen get so caught up smoking cigarettes and eating watermelons that large numbers of vehicles go unchecked during routine patrols. There are also long nap sessions, which sometimes last an entire afternoon. One hot afternoon on Highway One, a major road in Lashkar Gah, a group of soldiers from the Royal Gurkha Rifles arrived at a checkpoint to mentor some newly trained policemen. All of the policemen, except for one guarding the main entrance, were found sleeping under a tent next to the road, their loaded weapons next to them. It took the Gurkhas nearly half an hour just to get everyone ready for that day’s session. Later that afternoon, the same British mentors stopped by another checkpoint where they found all twelve policemen at the post, including the commander, taking a post-meal nap. “It is hard to motivate the police,” lamented a Gurkha officer who was leading the patrol team that afternoon. “Training them is not the hard part; teaching them discipline and determination is.”

Bullets and Body Armour

For their part, senior police officers say that what others perceive as a lack of discipline and determination is actually fuelled by frustration and fear. The low pay and the risk of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, they say, have demoralized them. According to one British officer, most policemen will refuse to be in the convoy’s lead vehicle during patrols in precarious areas. “They say their chances of dying in the explosion are higher because they do not have any protection,” he said. “So there are times when they don’t move until we [British soldiers] lead the patrol.”

By contrast with the better paid and equipped forces, like the Americans and British who strategically move from place to place, the local police must remain stationed in one area only, where they are vulnerable to Taliban retaliation. Yet their weapons are old. Most go on patrol with body armour that cannot protect them from a rifle bullet.

Among the few amenities the Afghan police do enjoy are U.S.-supplied green Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which mostly come topped with a mount for a single, light, Russian-made machine gun. These trucks, used solely for patrolling in volatile areas, are not even minimally armored, unlike the American Humvees or British ‘Snatch’ Land Rovers. As one policeman explained, more and more Afghan police choose to drive around in commonly available white sedans, and to patrol in their civilian clothes. “Yes, these Ford Rangers are comfortable,” explained Anwar Khan, who has been serving on the police force for three years. “But driving in them identifies us easily for the Taliban, who could tear up such a truck with one rocket attack.” Indeed, although improvised explosives are a major cause of death for policemen, many also die as a result of Taliban fire. During this writer’s visit, one young policeman came up to a British medic to get his wounds dressed; a bullet had gone through his thigh and pierced his stomach.

Since the war began in 2001, the Americans have lost about 699 soldiers in Afghanistan; the British about 184, and the Canadians about 125. The Afghan police force has had 1,200 deaths in 2008 alone. According to last year’s defence data, the police suffered an average of 56 violent deaths per month between January 2007 and November 2008.

Many suggest that morale among local policemen would improve dramatically if only they had better equipment and protection. If it was up to him, Khan said, he would issue a bullet-proof vest and a helmet to every policeman in Lashkar Gah.

Looking Ahead

This week, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, submitted a classified report on the state of the war —allegedly describing the situation as deteriorating. Many believe the report is the prelude to a request for more troops. And in March, President Barack Obama put forth a new strategy intended to boost security by upping the Afghan police force from 77,000 to 82,000 and the army from around 90,000 to 135,000 over the next two years.

But the plan to funnel more money into training and equipping the Afghan National Police has raised questions about the efficacy of the program. Last year, the non-partisan U.S. Government Accountability Office found that at least 75 percent of the more than 400 Afghan National Police units then in operation were still incapable of running their operations independently, despite some $10 billion having been spent on police mentoring and training since 2001. And the killing Wednesday morning of Afghanistan’s deputy security chief, in a city not thought to be particularly dangerous, has further thrown into relief the abysmal security situation throughout the country.

Bringing the Afghan National Police up to a level where they can defend not only themselves but the areas under their jurisdiction is as yet little more than a distant hope. Someone like Abdullah will only fight loyally with the police so long as he can support his family—and be able to buy batteries for his radio. America and its allies have grandiose expectations, but by placing so much of the burden on an under-trained, inadequately equipped police force, they seem to be setting themselves up for failure.