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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)

In recent months, the Afghan government has brought corruption charges against a handful of police chiefs. The arrests were seen as a step forward for the Interior Ministry, but U.S. and NATO officials said much bolder action is needed to repair the force's reputation.

"It may take a Richter-scale-size event to win back the public's confidence in the police," said Maj. Gen. Michael J. Ward, a Canadian who oversees police development.

In Iraq, for example, virtually all battalion and brigade commanders within the police force were replaced in 2007 and early 2008 in what amounted to a purge of the mid-level leadership. Although Atmar is considered an effective manager, he cannot replace large numbers of officers without jeopardizing his relations with senior Afghan politicians, Western military officials said.

The other primary focus of U.S. and Afghan officials is increasing the size of the police force, which stands at about 92,000 today, to about 110,000 by October. Because of widespread attrition and desertions, Afghan and NATO officials said, they have to bring in about 40,000 recruits over the next nine months to increase the overall force by 12,000 as called for in their plan. In some of the best-trained Afghan police paramilitary units, the most heavily employed police forces in the country, the annual attrition rate has surged as high as 75 percent.

Another challenge is getting newly trained police leaders to southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the fighting is most intense and where they are most needed. Because police officers do not live on heavily fortified bases as Afghan soldiers do, they have suffered heavier casualties than the army has.

The losses have made some top police officers reluctant to serve in the toughest battle zones. In February, for example, the Afghan National Police Academy graduated its second class -- 568 students who had completed three years of courses and training. U.S. officials assumed that as many as half of those new graduates would be assigned to lead police units in the south and east. Instead, only about 3 percent of the officers were assigned to those regions. About three-quarters were kept in Kabul.

A probe in Helmand

In Helmand province, the site of a recent series of large-scale offensives to drive out the Taliban, the newly introduced police have generally performed well, with the exception of a district police chief who Marines said charged locals to return to their homes after U.S. troops drove insurgents from the area in December.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited the area, the Now Zad district, to examine the progress and tour a market.

Before Gates's visit, the provincial governor removed the police chief from the area, and Afghan officials initiated an investigation into the allegations. U.S. officials said the results of the probe would be a bellwether of Afghans' willingness to deal with graft in the police force.

The incident also demonstrates the central role the police will play in ensuring that the Taliban does not return to districts from which it was ousted.

"I'd rather have no police than bad police, because bad police destroy local faith and confidence in their government and push [the locals] to the Taliban," Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the top Marine commander in the south, said in an e-mail.

"No matter how hard the Marines and Afghan Army work to earn the public trust, bad police can unhinge those efforts in a heartbeat."

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