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U.S. puts hopes in bedraggled Afghan police

If the U.S. is to succeed in seizing control of Kandahar — the country's second-largest city — from the Taliban this summer, improving the performance of the police will be at the heart of the effort.

May 26, 2010|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan — — Afghan national police checkpoint No. 4, substation 3, is a blighted shell of a building ringed by garbage and shaded by scruffy trees whose leaves are coated with fine gray dust. Here, nine police officers have the task of protecting the Shinghazi Baba neighborhood of southern Kandahar.

Sometimes they can't even protect themselves. Two months ago, an officer was fatally shot by an insurgent who escaped on a motorcycle.

"The force-protection posture is not really all that great," Sgt. 1st Class Arnaldo Colon, a U.S. Army military policeman, said as he arrived Wednesday morning for an inspection. He gestured toward dilapidated concrete barriers, a few sad strands of concertina wire and a yelping guard dog tied to a tree.

If the U.S. is to succeed in seizing control of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, from the Taliban this summer, improving the performance of the Afghan police will be at the heart of that effort. The often bedraggled force patrols roads and operates neighborhood checkpoints, putting officers in daily contact with a civilian populace the U.S. is trying to win over.

Colon's unit, the 293rd Military Police Company, trains and mentors Afghan police in Kandahar. The U.S. military is attempting to put an Afghan face on policing, pushing Afghans to take the lead on patrols, searches and neighborhood sweeps. The police and army will be responsible for security when U.S. forces begin to withdraw, perhaps as early as next summer.

When his company arrived in July as the only U.S. unit stationed in downtown Kandahar, Colon said, the police "didn't have a clue." They were incapable of patrolling on their own.

"Now, they're better prepared and know the minimum standards for patrol and security," Colon said as he led a foot patrol of seven U.S. MPs and six Afghan officers through busy streets filled with vendors hawking vegetables and shopkeepers selling sodas and snacks.

One of the MPs' biggest challenges, in addition to stemming rampant corruption and desertion, is teaching police to handle their own logistics. The Afghan officers are still unable to obtain and deliver their own food, water, ammunition, vehicles, fuel and construction materials, or to maintain and repair the equipment. They rely on North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces for all that.

The MP patrol, for instance, had brought containers of fuel for vehicles at the police substation and for two 2-ton generators installed by NATO. Fuel is supposed to be supplied by central police headquarters in downtown Kandahar, Colon said, "but it practically takes an act of Congress to get it here."

Meanwhile, checkpoint No. 4 had the unkempt look of a homeless camp. It was littered with trash and scraps of food. Three officers sat resting in the shade.

One of Colon's men, Sgt. Aaron Thomas, took note of the checkpoint's most glaring needs, starting with security. The cement barriers needed to be refilled with sand, he said. A new well had to be put in, and a small bridge had to be expanded so the police could get their vehicles in and out more efficiently. Electricity was another problem; the site gets only four hours of power every two days.

The Afghan police are crucial for more than just security. They help the U.S. military gather intelligence on insurgents. They also help guide military and civilian aid teams through neighborhoods as they try to set up development projects, a key to turning the population away from the Taliban.

Atah Mohammed, deputy commander of the checkpoint, said there was no police presence in the neighborhood before the checkpoint was set up last summer with MP help. The Afghan officers have managed to build rapport with the residents, who he said desperately want a school, a hospital and improved sanitation.

Yet there are no development projects in the neighborhood, Mohammed said, and virtually no government services. His nine-man checkpoint is literally the face of the government; on his baggy gray police uniform, Mohammed wore a button featuring the smiling visage of President Hamid Karzai.

"We talk to the people every day," Mohammed said. "They need our help, and we tell them we're here to serve them. They want us here."

As the U.S. patrol left the checkpoint, Thomas shook Mohammed's hand and said, "I'm going to try to get everything fixed for you."

Once again, the MPs were forced into the role of benefactor despite their desire to wean the police from U.S. help.

Canadian Army Sgt. Sarah Surtees, whose civil affairs patrol bumped into Colon's patrol at the checkpoint Wednesday, said the Afghan police have been instrumental in her mission. With their help, she said, she assesses community needs and encourages residents to seek help from the government-appointed district manager.

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