Mid-summer afternoons in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, feel like someone has hosed the air with hot steam. Standing outside the roof of a British Army patrol vehicle known as a ‘Snatch’ Land Rover, the air slams against the face as the vehicle speeds past the main bazaar in town. Fear of roadside bombs and suicide attackers in the market keeps the young men at the police check post on the main road leading to the bazaar alert at all times, closely monitoring vehicles entering and leaving. Along the road in Lashkar Gah and beyond, a number of such police check posts keep an eye on the neighbourhood foes, the Taliban.
In the scorching heat on the roof of a remote police checkpoint outside the bazaar, Abdullah Abdullah sat under a makeshift screen made from the hood of a rusty old farm tractor. A battered AK-47 stood on the bunker, slightly slanted, pointing in the direction of the mud huts situated between the lush green fields nearby. Beside his bed, an old Sanyo radio played Pashto songs. “This is my best friend,” he said 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 muddy dead batteries lying on the ground were evidence of Abdullah’s intimate friendship with his radio. Rotating its broken knob, he spoke of how the Taliban could be hatching an attack for 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. Earlier that morning, Taliban fighters had stormed a post about six miles north of Lashkar Gah, killing eight policemen. A British Gurkha officer, part of the Police Mentoring Team (PMT) in Helmand, expressed shock after hearing about the attack. “That was one of the strongest checkpoints in that area,” said Sergeant Shiva Gurung, “they must have come in huge numbers to run it over.”
The attack said more about the situation of the Afghan National Police (ANP) than about the sturdiness of the Taliban. After some members of the police were reported missing following the attack, Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the provincial administration, suggested that some of them could have had ties with the Taliban – raising suspicions about the internal integrity of the force itself. Abdullah said that there were some corrupt policemen who would engage in such heinous acts, but he insisted that he and his comrades were willing to fight the Taliban to the end. His only wish was that he and his fellow police personnel be treated fairly by the government.
Without doubt, any eventual success in Afghanistan will be partly, if not overwhelmingly, dependent on having a robust local security force, mainly the police. But the vast majority of the police force today complains about salaries and benefits, the latter of which are non-existent. The lucky ones get a uniform, a grey shirt and a pair of cotton or polyester slacks. 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 policemen running in his sandals.
Unlike most police forces, Afghanistan’s 77,000-strong national police deal 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 of Pakistan. From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, the policemen fight a group that has gained the reputation of being the most fanatical militants in recent history. All this for a salary of around 7000 Afghanis per month, or about USD 140. (Salary for a level-I British Army private serving in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is upwards of USD 2000 per month.)
Given the discontent with salaries, it is not surprising that the police force in Afghanistan is rampant with corruption and bribe-taking. Ask taxi drivers or farmers in Lashkar Gah, and nearly everyone will share some experience of police harassment. A farmer from the nearby town of Gereshk, who was transporting his wheat harvest to Lashkar Gah, was upset that a police officer had taken 1000 Afghanis from him the previous week. He expressed his frustration: “They will search your pockets and take money and valuables from you, 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 and go out on patrol with the local police force every day, are frustrated by this kind of behaviour. One early morning at a checkpoint, one recalled, 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 him four watermelons and drove away. When the British officer asked the police if he had paid the farmer for those watermelons, he received a brief pause, a smile and the obvious answer: “That was my cousin’s tractor. He gave me those in goodwill.” That has become a usual 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.”
The other problem is unmistakable sluggishness. In fact, some policemen get so caught up smoking cigarettes and eating watermelons that a large number of vehicles tend to go unchecked during a routine patrol. This is not to forget the nap sessions, which sometimes last an entire afternoon. On a hot afternoon on Highway One, one of the major roads 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 men, except one guarding the main entrance, were sleeping under a tent next to the road, their loaded weapons next to them. It took the Gurkhas nearly a half-hour just to get everyone ready for that day’s session. Later that afternoon, a routine check at another checkpoint was abandoned after the British soldiers felt too uncomfortable waking the dozen policemen, including the commander, all of them taking a post-lunch 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.”
For their part, senior police officers say that what others see as a lack of discipline and determination is actually fuelled by frustration and fear. Low pay and the heightened risk of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, they say, have demoralised the Afghan police. According to one British officer, during patrols in precarious areas most policemen will refuse to be in the convoy’s lead vehicle. “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.”
Of all the security forces in Afghanistan, including Afghan soldiers and private security guards, members of the police force are paid the least. This is despite the fact that theirs is arguably the most important job in the country today. The Afghan police come in contact with the Taliban almost every day, but their weapons are old. Most go on patrol with body armour that cannot protect them from a rifle bullet. On top of it all, they bring home almost two and a half times less than a member of the Afghan National Army, despite being engaged in battling the same enemy. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy? The police are considered a ‘lesser’ elite force, and are not trained as rigorously as are the army soldiers; the latter are subsequently expected to take on tougher missions, while the police are expected to patrol.
Among the few amenities the Afghan policemen do enjoy are US-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 lightly armoured, unlike the American Humvees or British ‘Snatch’ Land Rovers. As one policeman explained, this is why more and more Afghan police are driving around in commonly available white sedans, and patrolling in their civilian clothes. “Yes, these Ford Rangers are comfortable,” said 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.”
Many like Khan suggest that morale among local policemen would improve dramatically if they were to receive better equipment and protection. If it was up to him, he said, he would issue a bullet-proof vest and a helmet to every policeman in Lashkar Gah. Although improvised explosives are a major cause of death for local policemen, many have also died after coming under direct fire from the Taliban. During this writer’s visit, one young policeman came up to a British medic to get his wounds dressed, showing how a bullet had gone through his thigh and pierced his stomach before exiting.
Perhaps nothing speaks more loudly to the discrepancy in how the security forces in Afghanistan are treated than the figures themselves. Since the war began in 2001 until mid-August, the Americans have lost 746 soldiers in Afghanistan; the British 211; and the Canadians 128. Compare this to the casualty figures for the Afghan police – 1200 deaths in 2008 alone. With Taliban attacks and IED explosions on the rise, analysts say the number of deaths this year could climb to a few hundred more than those last year. According to last year’s defence data, the police suffered between 19 and 101 fatalities per month for the 23 months between January 2007 and November 2008, an average of 56 violent deaths per month. (Meanwhile, attempts to find similar statistics for the Afghan National Army received no response.)
After the US led a major offensive, dubbed Operation Khanjar, against the Taliban in Helmand province in late June, the responsibility and vulnerability of the Afghan police has become still greater. More recently, the level of instability increased as the country prepared for its first presidential election in five years. Just a week before the 20 August election, insurgents killed seven police officers in Kabul, targeting their vehicle with a remote-controlled bomb. In the same week, the Taliban also killed the police chief of Dasht Archi district in the northeastern province of Kunduz. And prospects of peace do not look much brighter post-elections, even after the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. Following allegations of ballot-stuffing and phantom polling stations in favour of Karzai, the Electoral Complaints Commission and the Independent Election Commission were, for some time, unable to come to a decision on how to deal with the issue. It was announced, in late September, that the two bodies had reached an agreement, the details of which had not been made public at press time.
With uncertainty over how long it will take to complete the investigation, the insecurity created by this latest political drama can only embolden the Taliban, and further burden the police. After all, the Americans and British move around from one place to another while fighting the Taliban; but individual police personnel are stationed in just a single area, and thus are often vulnerable to Taliban retaliation. In the end, they have to face the Taliban every day and night.
In the last couple of years, Taliban fighters crossing into Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan have also become a major source of trouble for multinational forces in southern Afghanistan. Lashkar Gah is 300 kilometres from Quetta, where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar led a Taliban strategy session last winter, and where much of the Taliban leadership is believed to be based. Afghanistan’s borders are haphazardly guarded by poorly trained policemen, which makes it relatively easy for militants to cross back and forth. The Americans have been training the local police to prepare them to patrol along the border with Pakistan, but with inadequate training and fewer resources, border policing only increases the vulnerability of the individual policemen.
In March, President Barack Obama put forth a new strategy to boost local security in Afghanistan by upping the Afghan police force number from 77,000 to 87,000 and the army from 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 also comes with questions about the efficacy of the programme. Last year, the non-partisan US Government Accountability Office found that over 75 percent of the more than 400 Afghan National Police units were incapable of running operations independently, despite the some USD 10 billion spent on police mentoring and training since 2001.
Bringing the Afghan National Police up to a level where they can defend themselves as well as protect the areas under their jurisdiction has thus far been little more than a yearning. Even someone like Abdullah will fight loyally with the police only so long as he can support his family. And buy the batteries for his radio. The US and its allies have grandiose expectations, but fighting a diehard enemy on a mere eight weeks of training, with few and ineffective resources, seems a formula for failure.
~ Anup Kaphle works for The Atlantic in Washington, DC, and was recently embedded with the British and Candian forces in Afghanistan. His trip was funded by the South Asian Journalists Association.