Shortages of Capable Afghan Forces in South Complicates U.S. Mission

Afghan police officers and members of their Marine mentoring team patrol a market in Garmsir district in Helmand.
Afghan police officers and members of their Marine mentoring team patrol a market in Garmsir district in Helmand. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

GARMSIR, Afghanistan -- "Six, you've got six," Marine 1st Lt. Justin Grieco told his military police training team, counting the handful of Afghan police officers present for a patrol in this volatile region of southern Afghanistan.

The men filed out of the dusty compound gate into the baking afternoon sun. On the patrol, U.S. military police officers outnumbered the Afghans two to one -- a reflection of the severe shortfall in Afghan security forces working with Marines in Helmand province.

President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan is heavily dependent upon raising more capable local security forces, but the myriad challenges faced by mentors such as Grieco underscore just how limiting a factor that is -- especially in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.

The extent of the push by 4,500 Marines into Taliban strongholds of southern Helmand will be determined, to a degree, by whether there are enough qualified Afghan forces to partner with and eventually leave behind to protect Afghan civilians. Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the Marine forces here, said urgent efforts are underway to dispatch additional Afghan forces to Helmand.

But here in Helmand's Garmsir district -- as in much of the south -- Afghan forces remain few in number, as well as short of training, equipment and basic supplies such as fuel and ammunition. Some Afghans quit because they are reluctant to work in the violent south; others are expelled because of drug use. The Afghan troops here, heavily dependent on Western forces, are hesitating to take on greater responsibilities -- and, in some cases, are simply refusing to do so.

The Afghan National Police officers mentored by Grieco's team, for example, are resisting a U.S. military effort to have them expand to checkpoints in villages outside the town center of Garmsir as the Marines push farther south, taking with them the Afghan Border Police officers, who currently man some of those stations.

"Without the Marines, we cannot secure the stations," said Mohammed Agha, deputy commander of the roughly 80 Garmsir police officers. "We can't go to other villages because of the mines, and some people have weapons hidden in their houses. We can't go out of Garmsir, or we will be killed."

The border police, too, have resisted taking up new positions. Col. Gula Agha Amiri, executive officer of the 7th Afghan Border Police, complained of his unit's lack of body armor and chronic shortages of ammunition and fuel. "If we have contact with the enemy, we can't fight for more than two hours," he said.

Both police forces have lost dozens of men to insurgent attacks in recent years, the Afghan officers said.

U.S. Army Capt. Michael Repasky, chief of the team that mentors the border police here, remains frustrated at the lack of logistical support. "I've been here five months and haven't been able to figure out why they aren't getting fuel," he said, explaining that the police receive fuel perhaps every two weeks and then run out.

That, in turn, makes the border police officers reluctant to move beyond their headquarters in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, he said. "If they move farther from Lash, it will be harder for them to get what they need. They want a roof over their heads, hot meals, time to rest," Repasky said. "I can encourage them to start a new checkpoint. But the commander can say no, and there's nothing I can do about it."

The overall shortage of security forces in southern Afghanistan exacerbates such tensions. There are about 13,600 Afghan soldiers and 11,000 police officers in the south, and each force is short of 4,000 men for positions that have been authorized but not filled. U.S. military officers say Afghan forces should be doubled to provide adequate security in the south.

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