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Marines give Afghan police the drill

The U.S. faces a tough task forging a reliable Afghan police force, a key goal of President Obama's new war strategy. About 5,000 of the additional American troops are to train the security forces.

December 05, 2009|By Tony Perry

Reporting from Nawa, Afghanistan — It's only his second day on the job after graduating from a police academy sponsored by U.S. Marines, and Khair Muhammad is stopping cars along the main road to the Nawa market to check for explosives.

An ancient Toyota rolls up, jammed with four men, five boys, a woman fully covered in a burka and, against the back window, a small goat. In a friendly but firm voice, the 20-year-old police officer orders the men and boys out of the vehicle for a pat-down search.

Then he checks the glove box and underneath the floor mats -- as well as under the goat. He waves the car on its way.

From 20 yards away, Marines express satisfaction over how Muhammad is handling himself. "He's pretty squared away," Lance Cpl. Mitchell Romero says.

He's also still an exception among Afghan police.

Plagued by corruption, questionable loyalties and incompetence, the Afghan national police are a huge question mark as President Obama dispatches an additional 30,000 troops to try to crack the Taliban insurgency. Five thousand of them will be assigned to train Afghan police and soldiers, reflecting the seriousness of the challenge.

In Kandahar, the main city of southern Afghanistan and the heart of the Taliban movement, Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi said he was outraged recently to find out that some police were allowing Taliban fighters to sleep in their barracks. Here, officials say they gave police recruits drug tests. They excluded anyone who tested positive for opiates, but acknowledge that they were lenient about hashish and marijuana -- lest the district be unable to meet even minimal recruitment goals.

Western trainers complain that Afghan police slip away from their posts, spend their time taking naps or tea breaks, and malinger when called to dangerous duty.

And they have a bad reputation among many Afghans -- bad enough that the district governor wasn't happy to see the police in Muhammad's group arrive back late last month from a nine-week training course in the provincial capital run by the U.S. military and Virginia-based DynCorp International.

"As you know, in the past, the police were corrupt and there were bad things," said Haji Abdul Manaf. "Nobody wanted to help the government as the result."

The arrival of the police in Nawa from the training center was not entirely reassuring. Of 160 graduates from the Nawa district, 50 disappeared as soon as they got back. After a few days it was still unclear where they had gone.

The police who returned were empty-handed. The Helmand provincial government was unable to coordinate their return and the delivery of weapons, vehicles and other gear they will need. Across the country, Afghan police are almost completely dependent on Western troops for weapons, fuel and other supplies.

The Marines here, eager to get the police to the four checkpoints ringing Nawa, lent each officer an AK-47 assault rifle. As the weapons were being handed out, many officers immediately checked to see if there was a round in the chamber by squeezing the trigger, to the dismay of Marines.

A dispute immediately broke out about plans by Afghan police brass to replace one of the Nawa commanders. The commander told Marines he feared he might be killed by police if sent to a new district.

Most of the police are illiterate. Much of the Nawa district force, as was true of Muhammad, has been recruited from outside the area, lured by a starting salary of about $180 a month. Muhammad hails from Oruzgan, the next province to the north. Although no ethnic or regional differences were immediately apparent in Nawa, officials and trainers are aware of the danger.

There has yet to be much interest among the young men of Nawa in joining the local police force, officials said.

The risks are considerable -- here and in many parts of Afghanistan. In Nawa, police recruits expect to do battle with the Taliban. Much of their training focuses on how to repel Taliban attacks and how to launch a counteroffensive, tactics that are much more akin to those of a military force.

Standing in line to get his AK-47, bayonet, and 120 rounds of ammunition, 25-year-old Zahir Turkman, whose wife and young son live in Pakistan, said proudly, "I have killed three Taliban. I will kill more."

Muhammad, decked out in his new gray uniform, plus weapon and crash helmet, has yet to exchange fire with the enemy. He's sure he'll be ready when the time arrives.

In many areas, particularly rural provinces such as this, there are no Afghan army units. Isolated, lightly staffed and poorly armed police posts are magnets for insurgent attacks. Casualty rates for police are considerably higher than for Afghan soldiers.

"We don't have the army here, so the police have big security responsibilities -- trying to keep the highway safe -- and sometimes they engage in direct fights with the enemy," said Ghulam Dastagir Azad, governor of Nimruz province, which borders Helmand in far southwestern Afghanistan.

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