Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Worrying news about Afghanistan's police force

An article in Newsweek makes some troubling allegations about the current state of Afghanistan's police force. I accept that the source may not be the most unbiased and reliable, but nevertheless, if even half the article is correct, it's very worrying. Here's an extract.

America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits — but the program has been a disaster. More than $322 million worth of invoices for police training were approved even though the funds were poorly accounted for, according to a government audit, and fewer than 12 percent of the country's police units are capable of operating on their own. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's top representative in the region, has publicly called the Afghan police "an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption." During the Obama administration's review of Afghanistan policy last year, "this issue received more attention than any other except for the question of U.S. troop levels," Holbrooke later told NEWSWEEK. "We drilled down deep into this."

The worst of it is that the police are central to Washington's plans for getting out of Afghanistan. The U.S.-backed government in Kabul will never have popular support if it can't keep people safe in their own homes and streets. Yet in a United Nations poll last fall, more than half the Afghan respondents said the police are corrupt. Police commanders have been implicated in drug trafficking, and when U.S. Marines moved into the town of Aynak last summer, villagers accused the local police force of extortion, assault, and rape.

The public's distrust of the cops is palpable in the former insurgent stronghold of Marja. Village elders welcomed the U.S. Marines who recently drove out the Taliban, but told the Americans flatly they don't want the ANP to return. "The people of Marja will tell you that one of their greatest fears was the police coming back," says Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who took over in November as chief of the U.S. program to expand and improve Afghanistan's security forces. "You constantly hear these stories about who was worse: the Afghan police that were there or the Taliban." The success of America's counterinsurgency strategy depends on the cops, who have greater contact with local communities than the Army does. "This is not about seizing land or holding terrain; it's about the people," says Caldwell. "You have to have a police force that the people accept, believe in, and trust."

More than a year after Barack Obama took office, the president is still discovering how bad things are. At a March 12 briefing on Afghanistan with his senior advisers, he asked whether the police will be ready when America's scheduled drawdown begins in July 2011, according to a senior official who was in the room. "It's inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren't training the police," replied Caldwell, taking part in the meeting via video link from Afghanistan. "We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform." The president looked stunned. "Eight years," he said. "And we didn't train police? It's mind-boggling." The room was silent.

Efforts to build a post-Taliban police force have been plagued from the start by unrealistic goals, poor oversight, and slapdash hiring. Patrolmen were recruited locally, issued weapons, and placed on the beat with little or no formal training. Most of their techniques have been picked up on the job—including plenty of ugly habits. Even now, Caldwell says, barely a quarter of the 98,000-member force has received any formal instruction. The people who oversaw much of the training that did take place were contractors—many of them former American cops or sheriffs. They themselves had little proper direction, and the government officials overseeing their activities did not bother to examine most expenses under $3,000, leaving room for abuse. Amazingly, no single agency or individual ever had control of the training program for long, so lines of accountability were blurred.

Coalition efforts to build an Afghan police force were painfully slow at first. By 2003 the U.S. State Department decided to speed things up by deploying the Virginia-based defense contractor DynCorp International, which had held previous contracts to train police officers in Kosovo and Haiti. The company began setting up a string of training centers across the country. After the Defense Department took a role in overseeing that work in 2005, it squabbled constantly with State over whether the training should emphasize police work or counterinsurgency.

Neither the State Department nor DynCorp was prepared for the job they faced. Most of the recruits are rural villagers who have never been inside a classroom. Roughly 15 percent test positive for drugs, primarily hashish. Few know how to use a toothbrush or drive, and nearly 90 percent are illiterate. In 2005 DynCorp opened a new police academy on the outskirts of Jalalabad, and within a few months the academy's drains backed up. Maintenance workers discovered that the septic tanks were full of smooth stones—a toilet-paper substitute used by many rural Afghans. DynCorp had to bring in backhoes to repair the problem, and the company had to add two days of classes in basic hygiene.

The ANP still takes just about anyone who applies. "Our recruits are unemployed youth with no education and no prospects," says Police Col. Mohammad Hashim Babakarkhil, deputy commander of Kabul's central police-training center. Since January 2007, upwards of 2,000 police have been killed in action—more than twice the figure for Afghan Army soldiers. U.S. officers say as many as half the police casualties were a result of firearms accidents and traffic collisions.

It's practically impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks, says a former senior DynCorp executive, requesting anonymity because he continues to work in the industry. But that was the time frame State and Defense set for the course. "They were not going to be trained police officers. We knew that. They knew that," the former executive says. "It was a numbers game." In fact, the course has now been cut from eight weeks to six in order to squeeze in more trainees. ("We believe the training is appropriate under the circumstances," says Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson. DynCorp spokesman Douglas Ebner says the basic-training course is part of a more extensive 40-week program, and is supported by further "field monitoring, mentoring, and advising." Training hours have been extended to make up for the lost weeks, he says. DynCorp does "not make the policies, recruit the police candidates, or design the program," he adds, saying the company has "fully met" its objective of providing highly qualified police trainers.)

Whether or not recruits have mastered their subjects, almost everyone graduates. Even if they fail the firearms test, they're issued a weapon and put on the street. Only the Interior Ministry can flunk a candidate, and that rarely happens. "There were a lot of Afghans who seemed to have some patriotism and wanted to make their country better," recalls Tracy Jeansonne, a former deputy sheriff from Louisiana who worked for DynCorp from May 2006 to June 2008. "But a lot of the police officers wanted to be able to extort money from locals. If we caught them, we'd suggest they be removed. But we couldn't fire anybody. We could only make suggestions."

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in US progress in Afghanistan.

Can this be possible? Could the US really have neglected or ignored the training of a national police force for eight years, as alleged? If even half the allegations contained in this article are correct, someone's head (perhaps several someones' heads) should roll for gross negligence.

Can any readers who've spent time in Afghanistan confirm or contradict the claims made in this article? If so, please tell us in Comments.



Justin said...

That seems like a fair categorization of what the ANP is like. Also, they were correct that the ANA is more reliable, motivated and trained.

It is so prevalient that the Marines introduce corrupt police in their pre-deployment training scenarios at Mojave Viper in 29 Palms.

Anonymous said...

Are those police some sort of quasi-national army or just local police?

Do they recruit locally?

Perhaps I am misunderstanding. I guess the police locally here in my town in the US are mostly from this area or not too far off.

I do agree with the comment above. You can't make a professional anything in a month.