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

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A08

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.

"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.

Afghans security officials at the lot told Rathmann that they had known about the stolen containers for three days. No one seemed to be able to explain why it took so long to alert the Americans. Only detergent and pillows had been spared from the looting, Rathmann told superiors.

By the time 30,000 additional U.S. troops are in place later this year, the United States will have nearly 105,000 in country, the most robust footprint since the 2002 invasion. When Rathmann's battalion leaves Afghanistan next month, it will be replaced by a larger unit that will more than triple the U.S. military footprint in the city.

Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, one of the top U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan, said "2010 is the decisive year."

"We'll never have more capabilities that we'll have this summer," he added.

But if progress can be made, NATO officials say, the onus will be on the Afghan government.

"I don't see the Afghan government seeing this as an urgent thing," said Ed Johnson, a Canadian police trainer embedded in Rathmann's platoon. "They don't have the timelines the U.S. has here."

Rathmann was more blunt.

"I see a burning desire only to get through the day and collect a paycheck," he said.

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