Afghan forces' apathy starts to wear on U.S. platoon in Kandahar

With a larger offensive postponed, U.S. troops instead have been battling a corruption-ridden police force and the local government's apparent misgivings about taking on the Taliban.
By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, June 20, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- First Lt. James Rathmann was in a hurry. Five 40-foot containers full of U.S. military gear had been ransacked. There could be Taliban fighters sifting through American uniforms, gear and weapons.

Before he could find what was missing, though, Rathmann would need to battle with an ally, a burden that has become all too common in the country's second-largest city, the latest focus of U.S. military officials struggling to turn the tide on a worsening conflict.

As the U.S. military sets out to secure cities including Kandahar, it is relying far more heavily on Afghan forces than at any time in the past nine years, when the American mission focused mainly on defeating the Taliban in the countryside, rather than securing the population. But the Afghan forces are proving poorly equipped and sometimes unmotivated, breeding the same frustration U.S. troops felt in Iraq when they began building up security forces beset by corruption, sectarianism, political meddling and militia infiltration.

"Can you take us over there?" Rathmann, of Palm Beach, Fla., pleaded as he tried to persuade an Afghan counterpart to accompany the Americans to a nearby lot. Deputy police chief Abdul Naseer shook his head. "Are you afraid?" Rathmann asked. "You don't need permission from the security chief to do your job."

The police commander wouldn't budge. None of his men would be available either, he explained, because their vehicles had no fuel.

As a 31-year-old platoon leader in the military police, Rathmann arrived in Kandahar nearly a year ago, bracing himself and his unit for pitched battles against shadowy bands of Taliban fighters. Instead, their war has become a slog. With a larger American offensive postponed, firefights have been few and far between. Instead, the Americans have been battling more vexing enemies: a corruption-ridden police force, the area's insidious politics and the local government's apparent misgivings about taking on the Taliban.

The United States and other Western allies still plan to inject hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands more troops into Kandahar and surrounding villages this year to try to wrest control of Taliban strongholds and allow breathing room for the expansion of government services in an area that has been effectively lawless for decades.

But the beginning of summer in southern Afghanistan has been ominous. In June alone, at least 53 NATO troops have been killed in the country, most in the south, where the Taliban has increasingly resorted to roadside bombings and ambushes to thwart the U.S.-led international force's efforts.

The district governor in Arghandab, a key ally in NATO's effort to jump-start governance in Kandahar, was killed in a bombing this week. And recent suicide bombings in the province targeting a police training center and an officer's wedding killed more than 50 people, including an American civilian police trainer.

Sleeping on the job

The rash of violence is sure to hurt U.S. efforts to build up the provincial government. The governor's office has just six employees and subsists on a monthly budget of roughly $20,000.

When Rathmann's battalion arrived a year ago, the city had 600 police officers. It now has 800, and nearly 1,200 recruits will soon start training.

On a recent patrol in the outskirts of Kandahar, Rathmann stopped at a police checkpoint that was recently ambushed. Officers were napping on an open field by the side of the road.

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