Policing Afghanistan

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Too few good men and too many bad ones make for a grueling, uphill struggle

Khost and Kandahar Provinces
Like most of the rest of Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan, Gorbuz District is a floodplain where wheat, corn, and other crops are grown by ancient methods in small plots running up to the base of 9,000-foot mountains. Stone or mudbrick-walled qalats–fortified family compounds of half an acre or an acre–dot the countryside, often built on elevated ground.

Some qalats have a de Chirico aspect, precise brown rectangles against a big, brilliant blue sky. Others cluster in villages that, like Italian hill towns, take on the appearance of a single walled compound.

Over the course of the last two years, a few jarring notes have intruded into this timeless landscape: a smoothly paved road, a huge solar-powered street light in the bazaar, a satellite dish on the district center complex. Nearly all of these are the work of the U.S. Army, which is attempting to bring Gorbuz and the rest of Khost from the Middle Ages to modernity. Until this year, Gorbuz had no schools; now its 80,000 people have 14.

The infrastructure projects are intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and motivate them to rally behind their national government. People are voting with their feet, as refugees return from Pakistan. Firm numbers are hard to come by in Afghanistan, but the best there are–those provided by U.S. forces–suggest that Gorbuz had a population of 66,000 in 2007. Now, people are starting to find conditions here better than in Pakistan’s neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

But while most Afghans embrace at least the tangible benefits of modernization, the small opposition remains violent. And for the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Gorbuz and much of the rest of Khost, this apparently tranquil, age-old landscape is a minefield.

Between March 21, when the Afghan year began, and mid-November, five IEDs exploded in Gorbuz, two of them close calls for their target, the chief of police, Bismallah, whose car was destroyed in one attack. Of Khost’s approximately 1,200 cops, 89 have been killed by IEDs so far this year.

Gorbuz District is authorized to pay 64 cops, and 45 were on active duty when I visited in March, but by late October only 30 were working. Captain Rick Knightly, quietly competent, leads the 27 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and U.S. Military Police who mentor the police at Gorbuz District Center. He explained, “We train them at least three times a week on the top 20 skills they have to learn and do joint operations with them.”

Asked whether the training has improved the performance of his force, the police chief smiled. Bismallah, a compact, wizened man, said, “There is no improvement in my police quality, because they are quitting. If this does not change, I will be alone here with Captain Knightly.”

In addition to the obvious hazards of the job, the police are paid a pittance. Their basic pay has been $100 a month, and some of Bismallah’s men have quit to join the Afghan Border Police, which pays $150, or one of two privately contracted security forces manning towers on U.S. bases, the Afghan Security Guards and the Khost Protection Force. (“They’re not allowed to smoke hash,” one of the U.S. soldiers said by way of explaining their superior caliber. Smoking hashish and marijuana is legal in Afghanistan and tolerated in the police.)

In the Afghan Security Guards, squad leaders make $300 a month–as much as Chief Bismallah, a 26-year veteran of the police force who speaks not only his native Pashtu but also Dari and English. Security guard supervisors make $400 a month–as much as Colonel Abdul Qayoum, who commands the 1,200-man police force for all of Khost Province.

While the insurgents cannot directly engage either the American Army or the Afghan Army and increasingly keeps its distance from the police, they kill with IEDs. The police are the most vulnerable of the security forces; unlike the U.S. and Afghan armies, the police have no uparmored Humvees. They drive around in U.S.-issued Ford Ranger pickup trucks that aren’t even bulletproof.

Again, the casualty numbers tell the story. As of mid-November, only 88 U.S. troops had been killed in action in all of Afghanistan this year, but 464 Afghan soldiers had been slain and a whopping 1,215 police. That last is an increase of 47 percent over the 2007 total. Add to that an estimated 2,600 police wounded or missing in action so far this year. Given a total Afghan National Police force of 77,000, that means 1 out of 20 cops was killed or wounded in 2008. By way of comparison, just 181 cops were killed in the line of duty in the United States in 2007, and our population is 10 to 12 times larger than Afghanistan’s. If the United States were as dangerous for police as Afghanistan, we would have lost at least 12,000 cops this year.

The IED threat is increasing all over Khost. In 2007, 69 IEDs exploded in the province and 59 were turned in. This year between April and October, just six months, 110 exploded and 104 were turned in.

Before U.S. soldiers can go home, Afghans have to be able to manage their own security. The Afghan National Army, which we’ve been training since 2002, has made good progress. Currently 41 of its 69 battalions (of 600 men) have met what U.S. trainers call Capability Milestone One, meaning that they are “capable of independent planning, execution, and sustainment of counterinsurgency operations at the battalion level,” and of those, 21 have also reached Capability Milestone Two, and thus can lead such operations. The Afghan National Army has not lost an engagement with insurgents since April 2007.

The Afghan National Police have a much sadder story, which is changing only slowly. First, Afghanistan doesn’t have enough cops to do the job. New York City alone has almost 38,000 police officers serving a densely packed population of 8.3 million. Afghanistan’s 77,000 cops serve a nation of 25 to 31 million people, most of them in villages scattered across one of the most mountainous countries in the world.

Some improvements are underway. A pay raise has just been announced for December 22: $20 for every cop in the country, plus combat pay of $2 a day for those in dangerous districts (which soldiers already receive). But there is no magic cure for IEDs.

A U.S.-designed reform of the police is slowly percolating through the country, too slowly to save the cops in frontline provinces like Khost. The chief instrument of reform is a program called Focused District Development, which pulls a district’s police out and sends them to a regional center for eight weeks of training by Afghan instructors alongside U.S. mentors. This has reached only 42 of a planned 172 districts to date. None of the districts that have been through the program has yet been certified at Capability Milestone One, though a few are expected to reach that level in the coming months.

Focused District Development is manpower-intensive. Mentoring teams of 12 to 18 trainers stay with units of around 100 to 120 police after they return home, following their progress more and more loosely as time goes on until the cops reach Capability Milestone One. Corrupt police are weeded out, illiterate police–nearly all the patrolmen and some of the NCOs–are offered basic reading classes, and all police (in theory) are issued body armor with plates, Kevlar helmets, up-to-date weapons, radios, and the same boots U.S. soldiers wear.

Both U.S. commanders and Afghan officials have a say in selecting districts to participate, but selection is heavily weighted toward the most dangerous areas. Forty of the first 42 districts to go through the program were among the country’s worst.

The slow progress of the Afghan National Police is not for want of money. The United States designated $1 billion in 2006 and $2.5 billion in 2007 for training and equipping the police, much of which is being disbursed this year. In 2008, Congress budgeted $800 million for the police, which will be spent mainly in 2009. A similar sum is budgeted for 2009, to be spent in 2010.

Major General Robert W. Cone, the head of U.S. training for the Afghan National Police, explained the big picture to me on November 8, our second interview this year.

“I’m building a $60 million training center in Maidan Wardak that will be capable of training 2,000 men at a time,” he said, “but I don’t have enough training teams to do the job as quickly as it needs to be done. I’ve only got 103 mentor teams.” Technically, Cone is short 2,300 trainers. All of the men he has on the job have been shifted from training the Afghan Army or picked up nearly one by one from various maneuver units.

ISAF, the NATO-led security and development mission in Afghanistan, is in charge of two districts whose police are currently going through the training program, and it will assume responsibility for another three in January. Cone would like to see NATO contribute more to the effort. “Germany has given us one team,” he says. “We did a deal with the Dutch and they came up with two teams. The Canadians and British contributed five teams each. But 90 to 95 percent of the resources for police reform have come from the United States.”

Cone acknowledges that the police are doing the job of an army at war, while equipped for keeping a peace that has yet to arrive. “Shape, clear, hold, build–that’s the doctrine,” Cone says. “But we have a lot of police in areas that need clearing.”

The police in Gorbuz are so intimidated by insurgent IED attacks that they use their Ford Ranger trucks and wear their uniforms only when accompanying U.S. forces. Otherwise they borrow civilian cars and wear civilian clothes. This isn’t unusual in Khost. But at least Bismallah insists that his men patrol their district. In some districts, the police stay alive by shirking active patrolling.

“Bismallah is the best of the six police chiefs I mentor,” says First Lieutenant Jeffrey Kelley, chief of the Provincial Mentorship Team for half of Khost’s 12 districts. “Bismallah’s the most active, and he cares about his soldiers. None of the other five chiefs I deal with go out on patrol with their men. One of them is illiterate.”

Sergeant David McNeil of the 101st Airborne, who works out of the Mandozai District Center, comments, “The guys that are in their Rangers and out there doing stuff, it’s not a question of if something will happen to them, but when.”

When Major Bill Appel arrived in April to head the Provincial Mentoring Team for Khost, most of the provincial capital’s police wore civilian clothes. Since Colonel Qayoum took over as police chief for the province in mid-August, more and more have followed his order to wear their uniforms, and Appel estimates that only 5-10 percent of the city cops are in civvies. But as a staff sergeant on Appel’s team notes, “the further you get out from Khost City, the fewer men are wearing uniforms.”

Obviously this doesn’t increase local respect for the police, and it makes police more vulnerable to friendly fire. But it’s hard to blame cops like Chief Bismallah for not pushing their men’s luck. As Colonel Qayoum told me, the death benefit for police killed in the line of duty is just 75,000 afghanis, or $1,500. (The death benefit for soldiers is 250,000 afghanis, or $5,000.)

Captain Knightly’s superior, Captain Terry Hilt, is a calm, classic midwesterner who commands Gorbuz and nearby Terzayi District. “The ANP here aren’t issued helmets or body armor,” says Hilt. “The American Army gives us armor for a reason. Two of our ANP who got shot might still be alive if they’d had body armor.”

Appel explains, “The individual body armor vests they have will stop a 9mm, but that is not the weapon of choice in this country; it’s an AK-47, and they don’t have the armored plates which would protect them.”

General Cone has an answer: “In order for me to give them the equipment, we need an end user agreement. If you don’t have a list of what’s supposed to be there, they’re going to sell it. And as the steward of the American taxpayer’s money, I won’t accept that.”

That’s hard to explain to the family of a slain cop. “It’s a valid concern,” says Appel, “but it’s not a reason not to equip them properly.” And of course if the police in Khost were better paid, they wouldn’t have an incentive to sell equipment. Perhaps the pay raise will do the trick.

The higher leadership of the Afghan National Police ranges from excellent to frightening. A former Khost chief, General Ayoub, was viewed by Americans who worked with him as a useless bureaucrat who rarely left his office; he was finally sent to a desk job in Kabul. But his replacement, after two and a half months on the job, had only managed to visit four of the province’s districts. Colonel Qayoum insisted to me that all 12 are fully staffed, against all evidence to the contrary. There are rumors that Qayoum has tried to thwart the career of Khost’s most outstanding police officer.

But Qayoum is an intelligent man, and his litany of complaints about the resources provided to the police is mostly well founded. He reeled off the issues: “We have no EOD [Explosive Ordnance Detonation] experts, no medics, not even any first aid kits, and no provision for maintenance of our equipment.” They do have two EOD “experts,” but they are working as regular cops because of the manpower shortage. Master Sergeant Richard Palasz says the police should have an EOD team in every district, given the magnitude of the threat from IEDs. “Our soldiers have a year and a half of training to become an EOD expert; the Afghans have three weeks.”

Nor are the police equipped for the sorts of extended missions they find themselves undertaking with American forces. Because the Afghan National Police are the only force legally authorized to search Afghan homes, they must accompany the Afghan Army and coalition forces on any mission that involves entering qalats. Some missions involve trekking up steep mountains with 130 pounds of gear, food, and water–but the police in Khost have no backpacks. On a recent mission, Major Appel’s team outfitted the police with kids’ backpacks intended for army humanitarian assistance to schools, jury-rigging body bags to carry food and water.

Major Appel added that the police don’t have flashlights or eye protection (ballistic glasses are mandatory for U.S. troops). “The men on my team chipped in, and we bought the 20 police on our mission sunglasses to protect their eyes against the dust that the helicopters stir up.”

The Khost police are too few to patrol effectively, even in districts where they feel safe driving the Rangers and wearing their uniforms. Mandozai has just 19 cops to patrol 72 villages with a total of 120,000 people. Terzayi has 38 cops responsible for the security of 110,000 people living in 131 villages, some of them far off the paved road.

Even fewer men are available at any given time. Kelley explains, “When you count out the guys on leave, most of my district centers have 26 police. They work 12-hour shifts, so there are 13 men on duty.” In reality, the Terzayi police only do independent patrols up to a few kilometers away from the district center, though they will accompany U.S. troops anywhere.

It’s hard to blame them. Recently a direct fire rocket attack from 900 yards away missed the entrance control point to the Terzayi District Center complex–home to the district’s 38 police–by only 35 yards. On October 17, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the district center’s front gate when he was challenged by a member of the Afghan Security Guard.

Two policemen, an uncle and his nephew, were shot in broad daylight in the bazaar on September 26, and another was killed while on leave. Just two were killed in 2007. Five Afghan Border Police were killed and two injured in Terzayi District on June 18, and four IEDs have exploded since April, when the 101st Airborne began its deployment here. Not surprisingly, six police in Terzayi have quit recently to go overseas. Terzayi men have a tradition of going to work in the Gulf states, where they earn three or more times police salaries.

The situation in Gorbuz and Terzayi is good compared with that in two extremely rugged districts of Khost, Qalandar and Musa Khel. Qalander has no Afghan National Police at all, “because they’d get killed if they went up there,” as one U.S. soldier who has been helicoptered in to fight in the area comments. Their district center is in neighboring Musa Khel, where First Lieutenant Shane Oravsky, a recent West Point graduate, led a mission. Some of the police his unit encountered were wearing badges on their hats denoting allegiance to Haqqani, a terrorist leader operating from Pakistan. “The police didn’t even know the name of their chief or sub-governor. No uniforms, nothing. Well actually, the only guy in uniform was a midget.” (There’s a family of midget cops in Musa Khel.)

Oravsky continued, “There are rumors the sub-governor up there has been handing out Afghan National Police trucks to the Taliban. The elders told us there are never any Taliban up there. We left, and that night the Taliban came in and captured 10 or 15 people and killed 5 or 10. I’d really like to get back up there.”

And even in relatively safe districts, the threat of sudden death is never far. On November 20, a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives detonated outside the Dowmanda District Center on the northern border of Khost with Paktia, killing two police doing guard duty and seven civilians, as well as wounding 16 and demolishing the district center complex and U.S. troops’ quarters (with two Americans wounded).

Afghan cops do little that resembles police work in the United States. In Khost and the Pashtun belt generally there are almost no burglaries or robberies, perhaps because most people live in McFortresses. In the only burglary I heard about in Gorbuz, a tractor was taken from the yard of a property that had high boundary walls on only three sides–laughable negligence, in the view of locals. But there is an astonishing number of murders for a small, homogenous rural population.

Gorbuz had three murders between March 21 and mid-November, two arising from land disputes, one from “wife stealing.” None of the culprits was caught; all jumped the porous border and disappeared into Pakistan. In the same period, Terzai had two murders, prompted by land disputes. In Mandozai, a small district of 120,000 people, October’s crime roster included five murders over land disputes, two carjackings, and a field-burning. That’s 10 murders in six months in districts totaling 310,000 people. On an annualized basis these Khost districts have a murder rate equivalent to that of New York City.

“There have been five murders in three weeks just in the little village right outside Forward Operating Base Salerno,” one of Appel’s colleagues said. A professor at Khost’s new university and his 11-year-old son were gunned down in their car, two 14-year-old high school boys were strangled and left with a note stating that they were killed in retaliation for a relative’s working at Salerno, and one of Appel’s translators was shot on his way home from work. This last murder might have been punishment for the man’s working for the Americans, or it could have reflected resentment over business: Translators have influence–too much influence, most soldiers think–on the choice of contractors.

Murders in Khost used to occur between tribes, but now they occur within families, with brothers killing brothers, and cousins cousins. It starts with land or money and then becomes a matter of saving face. This doesn’t seem to concern the local mullahs, who are preoccupied with building as many mosques as possible in their villages.

Afghan corruption is pervasive. It frustrates even some well-intentioned, seemingly blameless American reforms. New rules mandate written placement exams to determine who is qualified to be a police officer, an NCO, or a regular patrolman. But it’s widely known that many men have to pay bribes to get their results. Without the results, you can’t get paid. Lieutenant Kelley says, “I’ve seen my second-best chief fight to retain his job. Some of the men who are demoted from officer to NCO are so ashamed that they quit the force.”

There are also strong suggestions that some high scores stem from bribes. “There’s a personnel officer in Terzayi who cannot read and write and a new police chief I have not met who is also illiterate,” Kelley says. And the new system slots people according to literacy, but makes no provision for promotion from within the ranks. Says Palasz, “If you are illiterate and you join as a patrolman, you retire as a patrolman 20 years later.”

Regional Command South is the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, and it was an early priority to have police from four of its six provinces–Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan–go through the Focused District Development program. About 1,600 officers from this region have completed the training, out of about 10,000. Here, too, Afghan National Police casualties have been high this year: 664 killed and 1,017 wounded from January through mid-November.

The police forces in Kandahar that have been through U.S. training are a notch ahead of those in Khost, but nothing is easy in Afghanistan, and programs that should function smoothly rarely do. Ten of the 13 police substations in the city of Kandahar have gone through the program, as have three of the province’s other 13 districts. But in Kandahar city’s most dangerous subdistrict, the police who have gone through Focused District Development still have no plates for their body armor, no helmets, and woefully inadequate equipment and clothing.

Kandahar’s Police Subdistrict Nine covers a new community of around 89,000–a result of the building boom taking place all over Afghanistan–where neighbors don’t know or trust each other. As a result, it has become a magnet for IEDs. Ninety percent of the IEDs found or detonated in Kandahar are here, 23 of them logged between March 21 and mid-November. One cop out of the subdistrict’s 63 has been killed and two wounded in the last couple of months.

Some of the cops at Subdistrict Nine are wearing black Chinese knock-off boots that are falling apart just five months after issue. The boots they’d been issued during training were shot by the end of the eight-week program, according to Major Ryan Leigh, who commands the 13-man team training Kandahar’s Subdistricts Six, Eight, and Nine. Even the replacement boots came mainly in size 12, while most of the men were size 8 or 9. Subdistrict Nine was issued a grand total of 50 pairs of winter socks, though the rule is supposedly two pairs per cop, not exactly a lavish number in a place without running water. Police have only one uniform each, which they wash weekly. And they live in unheated quarters in an area where temperatures dip into the 40s or below at night for four or five months of the year.

Though the police are supposed to receive supplies through the Ministry of the Interior, there are always many slips twixt the cup and the lip. “We think the problem is in Provincial Headquarters. It’s being investigated by a prosecutor,” said Major Leigh.

Leigh’s team (one lieutenant, a master sergeant, four lower-ranked sergeants, and six enlisted men who mentor Afghans in guard duty, weapons cleaning, and vehicle maintenance) is responsible for three police chiefs, three deputies, three logistics, operations, and personnel officers, and about 150 ordinary cops. The team is a remarkably dedicated and compassionate mix of career U.S. Army and National Guardsmen, and like Major Appel’s team in Khost, they are protective of the miserably paid and equipped men they mentor.

“We are focusing on getting them their winter gear,” Leigh continued. “Last year 3,500 boots were sent from Kabul for the city, and 1,500 arrived.” The cops aren’t issued flashlights–this is a country where there’s no electrical grid, so most areas are pitch black at night–but Leigh’s team found the money to buy one big Maglite for every six cops in their districts.

The police here are short of food as well as equipment. Food prices in Afghanistan have increased by 100-150 percent in the last six months, in step with world price levels. “Kandahar Province is running $6,000 a day in the red on food alone,” says Lieutenant Engle. So the police don’t get the rations of meat or heating oil they are supposed to receive.

“They may not get meat for a month, but they still want to be ANP,” says Engle, a New York State National Guardsman who in civilian life is a seventh-grade teacher in Old Forge, New York. “When you see their patriotism, it’s unreal. It’s so great working with them, it’s why I extended my tour by three months.”

Leigh and his men are unanimous in their praise for Subdistrict Nine. “This district would be at Capability Milestone One in three months or so if we could get the other half of the police” into the training program, said Leigh. Just half of the 62 police here graduated from Focused District Development in June. “The ones who have are very good about taking care of the new guys,” Leigh explained. Six of the 62 cops are literate, and one speaks some English, which makes this one of the most educated police teams in the city of 600,000.

Leigh’s 13 Americans train two other districts as well, and neither is a pretty picture. “District Six has no leadership. It’s gone through four commanders. Unless they get a good new commander, they are 9 to 12 months from Capability Milestone One. District Eight borders on being self-sustaining, but the challenge is to get the leadership to do the administrative work they are supposed to do. It’s the most prosperous district we mentor, and morale is high. But they’re six to eight months from Capability Milestone One.” In districts where the problems are worst, the tiny size of the mentor teams makes progress slow. “It’s reactive mentoring,” Leigh explains. “It should be one-on-one for the logistics, operations, and personnel officers.”

In rural Kandahar Province, the situation is more difficult, with Taliban attacks frequent. Police regularly transfer to the safer city districts after completing Focused District Development.

Major Kevin J. Reilly of the New York State National Guard–in civilian life a Garden City, Long Island, cop–heads the team training the police in one hotspot about two hours from Kandahar city, Maiwand District. The 110 police under his supervision are responsible for the security of 50,000 Afghans living in a sprawling agricultural district roughly 40 kilometers by 50. “Out of the 110, maybe three or four can read and write,” says Reilly. “This makes our job difficult, because they can’t do lists. A lot of them can’t count. What we train them in is 10 percent police work and 90 percent light infantry combat.”

The accomplishments of the training program should be measured against the unpromising starting material. In Arghandab District, an agricultural area just over a mountain from Kandahar, a team from the New York National Guard was about to begin shepherding the cops through the Focused District Development program. The police chief showed up in civilian clothes for the meeting between the American team and the district elders and admitted that all of his 200 cops were illiterate with the exception of three NCOs. Four cops were killed by IEDs in Arghandab between March and November, and 13 died in a mysterious incident where a “spy” befriended some of the cops and invited them to his home. There, they were drugged–or took drugs–and their throats were slit.

“The police in this district are police during the day and Taliban at night,” commented the commander from the elite Afghan National Civil Order Police, the best-equipped and trained police force in the country, who was about to bring his men to replace Arghandab’s cops during their two month classroom training phase. He didn’t have high expectations for the training program, saying, “The donkey is the same but the clothes are changed.”

Especially in the south, drug use is a problem among police. General Nasarullah Zarifi is the Afghan police general heading the Provincial Training Center where cops from the four southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul go for eight weeks of formal instruction at the beginning of the Focused District Development process. He notes that on intake into the classes, 39 out of 372 cops tested positive for opiates, 98 for marijuana, and 16 failed their physicals. The policemen I saw at the Kandahar Police Mentoring Center looked robust and fit. One American mentor pointed out that the men are fed better at the center than before or after, and that they are “scared s–less” of General Zarifi, a stern disciplinarian. But when they return to their districts, no drug testing is done.

Administering the police mentoring program is harder in the Pashtun belt than it needs to be because all the forms that come down from the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul are written in Dari, while the language of Kandaharis is Pashtu. Both are official national languages, but historically the Ministry of the Interior has been a Dari-speaking stronghold staffed by Tajiks.

Typically, even in Pashtun provinces like Kandahar and Khost, the top brass and some district police chiefs speak Dari. But NCOs and below don’t. So in many cases, NCOs who are barely literate in Pashtu have to struggle to fill out paperwork in a grammatically distinct language. (Luckily, many nouns, especially those dealing with abstract concepts, are common to both tongues, and they are written in the same script.) This also explains why there are no police medics for Kandahar Province: The only instructional course is given in Dari, which few cops understand.

Everyone involved in police mentoring, from General Cone on down, is well aware that the program is not a quick fix. Initial expectations were that the mentor teams would oversee districts for two to four months after their training, but the word is that it’s likely to take 10 to 12 months for many districts to reach Capability Milestone One.

One mentor, himself a New York City detective, commented, “There are probably precincts in New York that aren’t CM1-capable. We go to police academy for six months, and after that it takes three to five years for a New York cop to know what he’s doing. And we’re going to do it in an eight week academy and a year of mentoring here?”

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