Program aims to rebuild Afghan police force, repair its image

U.S. soldiers lead a training exercise for Afghan police recruits in the western province of Herat.
U.S. soldiers lead a training exercise for Afghan police recruits in the western province of Herat. (Majid Saeedi/getty Images)
By Greg Jaffe
Friday, March 12, 2010

KABUL -- U.S. and Afghan officials are beginning a major overhaul of the Afghan police with the goal of cleaning up a force whose recent history of corruption has undermined confidence in the Kabul government and fueled the insurgency.

The program, which will probably include sending thousands of officers abroad for training, is designed to rebuild a force of more than 90,000 Afghans who were dispatched to police stations with virtually no training and little supervision. After nearly nine years of war, senior U.S. and Afghan officials said they are essentially starting from scratch.

"We weren't doing it right," said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the NATO training effort in Afghanistan. "The most important thing is to recruit and then train police," he said, emphasizing the steps necessary before any deployment. "It is still beyond my comprehension that we weren't doing that."

With their ranks blotted by bribery, theft, extortion, drug-running and defections to the Taliban, the police stand in stark contrast to the Afghan National Army, which U.S. officials said is well-respected. Caldwell is expected to brief President Obama on the police training program via video teleconference Friday, senior U.S. officials said.

The police are a critical and high-risk element of the Obama administration's new war strategy. As U.S. and Afghan forces drive Taliban fighters from their havens throughout the country, U.S. officials are counting on Afghan police to fill in behind them to prevent the return of insurgents and build support for the struggling Afghan government.

"If we don't get the police fixed, we'll never change the dynamics in the country," Caldwell said. "No matter how well we do clearing and holding, we will never build on that progress and sustain it without a police force. We have to get this right." He called the training effort "the greatest challenge" facing U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Overseas instruction

A key element of the effort is Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar's plan to send up to 3,000 top police officers each year to Jordan and Turkey for nine months of instruction. Those officers could then be dispatched to bolster the force or replace corrupt or ineffective district and village police chiefs, U.S. officials said.

The program is designed to make up for a critical shortage of about 500 NATO police trainers and a scarcity of training bases for police. Afghan officials also hope that the prospect of a diploma from a foreign police-training center will lure higher-quality recruits and burnish the police's poor reputation among the Afghan people.

"Afghans are crazy about education abroad. I can say that with authority because I used to be the minister of education," Atmar said in an interview. Afghan and U.S. officials are in discussions with officials from Jordan on training Afghan police officers there as soon as possible, he said.

Beginning next week, all new recruits will get at least six weeks of training before being assigned to police stations. U.S. and Afghan officials are also building the Interior Ministry's first training and recruiting offices. About three-quarters of the police officers serving in Afghanistan have received no formal training.

Multiple challenges

The interior minister also has pledged to purge the force of corrupt leaders.

"For a long time, corruption was considered a taboo subject," Atmar said. "It is no longer the case. We have to fight this curse."

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