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

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.

"The U.S. force is growing down here, but the Afghan force is not growing nearly as fast," said Col. Bill Hix, who until recently led the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command in Kandahar, another large southern province, overseeing the development of police and soldiers in southern Afghanistan. "We have people who are bleeding and dying, and we need to look hard at how we generate [Afghan] forces."

The shortages of capable Afghan forces means they usually assist with searches and security on operations planned and led by Marines, the mentors said. "Right now, they're just happy with us telling them 'Go there, do this,' " said Stephen Woods, a civilian police adviser with the Marine mentoring team.

There are exceptions. Two police officers buying lunch in Garmsir this week observed a drug sale, shadowed the dealer, detained him and seized 30 bundles of heroin, Grieco said.

Gaining approval for increasing the size of the Afghan forces -- which requires international endorsement -- has been a maddening process, said Hix, comparing it to "negotiating a peace treaty."

Even after such approval, many hurdles remain, particularly in the south, he said.

"It's a challenge to get people down here," said Hix, adding that units that deploy to southern Afghanistan often suffer higher rates of unauthorized absences. "The guys think there is a monster down here." Drug use in the forces is another problem, according to U.S. and Afghan officers. "We lose 5 to 10 percent of every class in the police force to opiate use," Hix said.

Training the police and army poses other challenges, he said. Police officers and soldiers -- the vast majority of them illiterate villagers -- require extensive training, but during a war only so many can be pulled away from their jobs at any one time.

Building training and other facilities for the forces and providing them with equipment remain slow because of red tape and contracting rules, he said. It takes 120 to 180 days to start work on a training facility and often more than a year to 18 months to field new equipment, such as the 1,000 Humvees on order for the Afghan army in the south. "We can't swing the money cannon quickly enough to adapt," Hix said.

Still, Hix said, the Afghan forces have made significant progress in the south. In the past year, the training capacity for regional police has doubled and the rate of those absent without leave has halved.

Despite the problems, Hix said that replacing foreign forces with homegrown ones is the only viable long-term solution, in part because the latter cost far less. "We should not be substituting U.S. troops for Afghans, which is what we are effectively doing now . . . in trying to secure and stabilize Afghanistan," he wrote in an e-mail.

U.S. and Afghan officers urged greater emphasis on professionalizing the Afghan police, which are at least as critical as the army in a counterinsurgency campaign but have received far fewer resources. Residents also have complained about corruption among police officers, the mentors say.

The police's law-enforcement role in Garmsir is limited because many of the officers are illiterate, Grieco said. "Paperwork, evidence, processing -- they don't know how to do it," he said. "You can't get a policeman to take a statement if he can't read and write."

Increasing numbers of residents are coming to the police station to report problems, said Staff Sgt. David Dillon, one of Grieco's team members. Still, as a patrol moved through the local bazaar, the police barely interacted with civilians, troubling their mentors.

Shopkeepers and residents eyed the patrol silently and did not respond to greetings in Pashto. An Afghan boy swore in English at one of the Marines, who responded: "Go home."

"They're still a little hostile towards us," Woods said. "They will throw rocks. They will give you that look. They don't trust us."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company