By Greg Jaffe
Friday, March 12, 2010; A08
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."
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."