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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.

"What is he doing to prevent his men from getting ambushed?" Rathmann asked the senior officer at the scene, through an interpreter.

The groggy-looking officer didn't seem interested in discussing ambushes. Instead, he sheepishly asked the interpreter to ask Rathmann if the Americans had a spare pair of combat boots.

"Boots!" Rathmann exclaimed. "You want me to give you my boots? I'm sure they want my underwear, too."

The vast majority of police officers in Kandahar are illiterate. The allocation of fuel they get from the Interior Ministry is either insufficient or partially stolen virtually every month. Officers are dependent on NATO troops for everything from fuel, ammunition and bottled water for checkpoints to generators and air conditioners for police stations.

Corruption is institutionalized throughout the ranks, and American soldiers say Taliban spies and sympathizers have infiltrated the force.

The former police chief at the station Rathmann is embedded in was dismissed recently for suspected links to insurgents. His deputy was locked up briefly for allegedly stealing cases of bottled water.

The new chief defends officers' right to collect bribes, pointing out that their starting pay -- $210 a month -- is grossly inadequate.

"We take it from the bottom, and the higher-ups do the same," he said in an interview. "Everybody takes bribes. It has become a habit."

The few instances in which Rathmann's men have managed to zero in on Taliban cells have led to disheartening outcomes. In some cases, their police counterparts have been unwilling to participate in raids.

"When it comes time to plan a mission, they all take out their phones and start making calls," said Staff Sgt. James Jackson, 25, of East Point, Mich. "Their body language says a lot. It makes us think they know more than they're telling us."

The few suspected Taliban members that the American platoon has taken into custody have found a way to get out quickly by lobbying power brokers who have sway with police commanders.

Out of the loop

On the day that the Afghans refused to help track down the stolen containers, Rathmann and his men went on their own, but by the time they found them in a nearby lot, the padlocks had been busted and most of the pallets inside were empty.

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