April 21st, 2010
01:09 PM ET

Security Brief: The difficulties of training Afghan police

A U.S. Army adviser trains Afghan national policemen in Kandahar.

Yar Mohammed is a police chief in Kandahar and his "in-tray" is overflowing. Besides commanding fledgling recruits to the force - and trying to convince more to join, he is a prime target, as is anyone in a position of authority - for the Taliban. And he has to deal with the perennial curse of corruption within his own force.

He tells visiting U.S. soldiers that when he sends new recruits to submit their paperwork, they often have to pay a fee - in cash. There should not be any fee, but this is Afghanistan.

Tales of corruption abound - Afghans going through the Western training courses tell their trainers how they never get their full salary because their senior officers take a cut first.

The latest program to improve the professionalism of Afghan police is an eight-week course overseen by international trainers. It's basic - after all, while many express a desire to protect their people, some recruits are illiterate.

"So, in the classroom, we have to teach them by rote, and when they're tested it has to be all verbal," one official said.

Many are already on the job, before having been through any training. One Western official familiar with the courses said he had met one man who had been an officer for nine years without having had a day of training until he was sent on this course.

At one police station in what the Americans call "district two," Afghan police prepare for a joint patrol with U.S. MPs.

U.S. Staff Sgt. Armando Velez offers a few tips on getting the best out of the new police. The officer in charge "should go down the line and make sure their weapons are good and they have enough ammunition to go on this patrol," he says. Most of the men have never been shown how to fire a weapon properly - and in Kandahar that could be deadly, says Velez.

Those who've been through the course have clean uniforms and an air of some professionalism. In the courtyard of this police station, it's more ragtag, more a case of "Well, at least they're trying."

No two police officers looked the same, with various pieces of webbing and vests on different officers and some with none at all.

U.S. and Canadian troops are working around the clock to stand up the police force in Kandahar, part of a nationwide program to create a force of 134,000 police men and women by October 2011. That's just after President Obama's target date for beginning to reduce the U.S. military presence.

As of December last year, according to NATO, there were 96,000 serving officers. Across the country, about 8,000 recruits are being trained at any one time. Canadian, French and German trainers are also prominently involved in what is a truly multinational mission.

There's been plenty of criticism of previous attempts to train Afghan police, attempts that have cost U.S. taxpayers some $6 billion so far. In a detailed report earlier this month, the magazine Der Spiegel quoted German trainers as saying that the training mission was "impossible" because of the level of corruption and the caliber of applicants. We are training officers at a rapid pace, one German trainer told Der Spiegel, "and when they leave we have no control over them." Some have even turned on NATO troops - five British soldiers were shot dead last fall by an Afghan policeman.

So the crash course is an uphill battle. The course we saw in Kandahar also involved classroom work - encouraging police to work with the population, rather than see them as a source of income. And it was complemented by joint patrols. We joined Lt. Danielle Champagne out on patrol with a police unit. She says her charges are learning. "Like one day we'll find an IED here and they'll learn from it and now they'll check that area and learn from those techniques."

Some of Kandahar's police show promise and are inspired by a real animosity toward the Taliban. Lt. Abdul Ghani is a recent graduate of such training by Canadian trainers. He bears the scars of a shoot-out with insurgents that left one hand paralysed. He says it's made him more determined to be a good officer. Another recruit, Saeed Mohammad Shor, is looking forward to graduation. "I have learned a lot about working with people," he says. "I'm not scared for myself. I want to protect my people, I want them safe."

A Western official involved in the training told me: "The process is pretty frustrating. We're proud of some of the men who go through - we've stopped being surprised at how inept others are."

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Filed under: Afghanistan • World
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Carole Clarke

    You cannot change thousands of years of custom in such a short time. This country has always been dirt poor – overcharging, graft, outright theft and taking cuts is how they "redistributed the wealth". The men who take the cuts can also be expected to provide favors or obtain whatever is needed for those who paid the cuts. It's how things work out there. Even if you did direct deposit of paychecks into a bank, they would have to pay their superiors off later. Best thing to do is make the custom work for you.

    April 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Baalsak

    I just hope this doesn't come back to haunt us. It's nice to know there are some Afghans who do want to protect their people, but what about the others who only see it as a way to get money, like what was mentioned above? If we're going to win this "rebuild Afghanistan" we better do it thoroughly and right the first time. Then again, we'll be living in a perfect world.

    April 22, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. desert voice

    It is difficult not to agree with both writers! Carole's advise makes sense, but is "short on details." Baalsak's advise is right on the mark: We better get it right this time! There is something unsettling in training uneducated, cruel people to be police! It gives me shivers. I understand that I may be an exception here. I am after all a Pole by birth. When I lived in Argentina, people feared the "Correntino police." Those were uneducated campesinos from the province of Corrientes and Chaco Argentino. They formed the bulk of the police force's lowest ranks. They were regarded as "beasts." They were beasts ... and they in many ways resembled what the U.S. is training now in Afghanistan. To compound the problem, the police chiefs were also bests ... only educated! Then, in Latin America in general, I was upset to see that the American embassies seemed to support every beastly element, as long as it worked for and advanced their interests. This was the norm, and I fear still is. Democracy was not the main goal, for instance, when CIA supported the military juntas in Guatemala and El Salvador. Democracy was the distant second, an echo in the background! If history is any teacher, I fear the repetition of the same in Afghanistan! Let's not allow this to happen! Let's bring decent Afghans from abroad, to run the police!

    April 23, 2010 at 5:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. NiceGuyTony

    They cant read or write and haven't been trained to fire their weapons. How would they know what the laws are? It would be funny if it was a joke.The officers in charge of this (be it Afghan, German, Emglish Etc) need to stop now and get international peacekeepers in place for the long hual. Why bother with what they are doing it's insane. I'm not saying that for a start these officers meet the standard to become a german or american police officer but give me break

    They will have to bring teachers and teach these men basic reding and writting. A basic firearms course and some range time. What they did is get a bunch of people with 0 education and throw guns at them and say your the police now, I mean why even bother.

    Is this some kind of show by the trainers to comunicate they need time and resources, I hope so!

    April 23, 2010 at 5:26 am | Report abuse |
  5. 0302

    Believe we have lost sight of the fundamental principles that are critical in developing effective governance, with law enforcement normally being the interface between those who govern and those who are governed. The key is establishing trust and confidence between the two. This relationship can only be established if law enforcement is seen as having a vested interest in the welfare and safety of the people they serve. To do this, the police force must first be generated from within the local population, not imported from other areas. They must be accepted members of the community. In the US, the vast majority of us are not law abiding citizen because of some fear of the police or government. If that were the case we would be experiencing many of the same problems in Afghanistan and other less developed countries with revolution being a real threat. We generally trust government and the more local the government, the more trust we have in it. (I for one instinctively trust a local police officer more than I would a federal agent.)
    As for corruption, if it is a cultural norm within society, believe it permeates every facet of Afghan society, breeding it out of only a segment only builds more distrust.
    While there is no simple answer to the complex issues in Afghanistan, focusing on the tangibles, (number of police officers generated, the training, the equipping, money , ect..) and not on developing strong relationships between local populations and local governance/ law enforcement, we will only increase the time and effort required to see this through.

    April 23, 2010 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. Carole Clarke

    From what I've picked up, it looks like we have some sort of deadline in place already. Gotta be out by______(pick a date). We've already evacuated the Korengal Valley at a cost of too many lives. Should never have attempted that area in the first place. It's too mountainous and poor a country to have a system of bricks and mortar schools. The religious madrassas schools would never allow the competition anyway. They might be able to afford a largescreen TV for a whole village and educate them on air. Or at least expose them to the outer world they will never see in person. Squeeze that toothpaste out of their tube, the Taliban won't be able to push it back in. Pass out basic books to help them learn to read and write, have the news on TV. If they can see what small loans do for the poor people of India they might be interested in the same thing. But you can't force it on them. Lay the candy out and let them try it.

    April 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |