A Ragtag Pursuit of the Taliban

The National Guard explains their attempts to train Afghanistan national police to help protect local residents against the Taliban and other Islamist fighters. Video by Candace Rondeaux/The Washington Post, Edited by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

CHAHAR DARREH, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Abdul Hamid, a new police commander, was having trouble doing the math. When he took control of this district in the country's north in early July, he had 54 officers. Since then, some had been transferred; others had disappeared.

How many were left?

The commander looked up at the bare light bulb hanging from his office ceiling. Nearby, Maj. Vincent Heintz, a barrel-chested National Guardsman and onetime New York prosecutor, put his palm to his temple and leaned toward Hamid. "Sir, would it be fair to say you don't know how many officers you have working here?" Heintz boomed.

Hamid, reed thin and swimming in his oversize police uniform, smiled affably while the question was translated. He nodded. "No, I don't know how many officers work here," he said.

It was another summer day in the district of Chahar Darreh, where Heintz, 40, and his team of U.S. military advisers are experiencing firsthand the challenges of turning a few dozen Afghans into a frontline counterinsurgency force.

The United States has spent about $6.2 billion since 2002 to transform Afghanistan's national police into a bulwark against the Taliban and other Islamist fighters. About 730 American military advisers have been deployed to help train and equip the force. But as of this spring, not a single one of the 433 police units that have received the training has been judged fully capable of handling its mission or the Taliban threat, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Across Afghanistan, meanwhile, roadside bombs have become more frequent and firefights have grown fiercer. In May and June, more foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Seven years after the United States began its fight against the Taliban, the insurgency is proving more resilient.

While U.S. officials say the Afghan army has improved markedly since the war began, the poorly trained, ill-equipped national police force has lagged behind. About 50 officers a month have been killed this year. From January 2007 to last month, 991 police officers were killed in action, according to U.S. military statistics.

Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of the U.S. military division charged with training Afghan police, said casualties have dropped sharply in districts where police have received focused training and mentoring. But the program, he said, is short of trainers: An additional 2,300 are needed to have a lasting impact in each of the country's police districts.

Here in Chahar Darreh, Heintz and the other U.S. advisers -- most from the New York National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment (Light) -- have a daunting mission: to teach about three dozen men, who earn about $100 a month, how to breach the door of a house like SWAT team commandos; show them how to patrol their beats, interact with residents and gather intelligence; and inspire them to pursue the Taliban, village by village.

The U.S. soldiers who came here are firefighters, paramedics, police officers, civil engineers and information technology consultants, most from New York City. They were seasoned by years in the National Guard and a tour in Iraq. Many of them had walked through the rubble left by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Lower Manhattan. Now, this tightknit crew of New Yorkers is in Afghanistan as part of what its members consider a very personal war.

Back in Hamid's office at police headquarters, Heintz stared at Hamid a long minute.

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