NATO retools in a key mission: Building an Afghan police force

With Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation, Gen. David Petraeus would move from overseeing all U.S. forces in the Middle East to running operations in Afghanistan.
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When Gen. David H. Petraeus begins his new job as top military commander in Afghanistan, his success will hinge in part on a group of green-uniformed Afghan recruits who recently practiced a mock ambush at the country's main police academy in Kabul.

As the men battled wooden props with fake weapons, an Italian instructor called out: "Remember, police are always the victims of the ambush, so they have to react to them." A few yards away, other trainees were searching a truck for a hidden bomb, the cause of many of the nearly 1,600 fatalities among Afghan police officers in the past two years.

The practice sessions were deemed successful, but the crucial test comes weeks from now when the training academy's June graduates take their positions in districts around the country. Based on past performance, at least a quarter will quit or die in the first 12 months.

Plugging the gaps with competently trained police officers -- and persuading them to stay -- is a challenge that has frustrated each of Petraeus's predecessors. But the task has taken on renewed urgency in recent months as NATO prepares to begin drawing down its forces next year.

The alliance is shaking up existing training programs and adding new incentives in an attempt to turn around what has been one of the biggest, most enduring disappointments of the nearly nine-year-old war: the inability to transform the country's 90,000 police officers into a professional force capable of assuming control of local security.

NATO officials touted the changes in advance of the release of an audit by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The report, released Monday, criticized NATO for overstating the percentage of Afghan security forces -- including police and army -- that are fully capable of performing their missions. The report also said training efforts suffer from a shortage of trainers and mentors.

"The old system was broken. It just didn't work," said Marine Col. Gregory T. Breazile, spokesman for NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, which oversees police and army training. While better instruction is yielding a stronger Afghan army, he said, the police units responsible for local security have been until now "just a mess."

"Police couldn't shoot, or if they shoot, they can't hit," he said. "Half the police force is still untrained and on the streets. And then there are the reports of corruption."

New inducements

The makeover, which began late last year, is largely aimed at attracting a higher-caliber recruit and offering incentives to keep him in uniform longer. The inducements include signing bonuses and -- a first -- literacy classes, a powerful draw in a country where only 20 percent of the adult population can read and write.

A revamped, eight-week training program supervised by foreign paramilitary officers is improving marksmanship and basic military and survival skills. Soon it will be expanded to include veteran officers, NATO officials say.

A crucial improvement is helping ensure that police officers actually get the money that is owed them. Instead of being paid by their commanders -- who often pocket some of the cash -- officers receive their paychecks directly through ATM cards or bank credits sent to their cellphones. Because many officers are illiterate, "some of these guys never even realized how much they were supposed to be paid," Breazile said.

Such changes have only recently taken effect, and Defense Department officials acknowledge that they do not yet have the data to fully measure the impact.

Nationally, the attrition rate for police continues to hover around 20 percent -- and upwards of 70 percent for the country's elite paramilitary police force, the Afghanistan National Civil Order Police, or ANCOP, the Defense inspector general said. Many police officers quit because of fear, Taliban intimidation or because they could make more money elsewhere, said a Defense official who studied the attrition trends.

Eliminating corruption

NATO and Afghan officials acknowledge that fixing the country's policing problems could take years, partly because police units by nature are decentralized. The officials also acknowledge the difficulty of rooting out corruption, a time-honored tradition in many districts where officers feel compelled to find ways to supplement wages that average $200 a month.

The widespread practice of extracting fees and bribes has so undermined support for police that some districts seem to prefer having no police at all. After U.S. Marines booted the Taliban out of the southern city of Marja in February, town elders petitioned the U.S. commander not to allow local police to reclaim their old jobs, complaining that they were little better than thieves in uniforms.

"The army is becoming a more professional force. The police, frankly, are not," said a member of the Afghan parliament who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The officers can't read, so when they ask for your papers, they can't read them. If you can't read an ID card, how are you capable of taking on a drug lord?"

Afghan officials see a glimmer of hope in the improved training programs and emphasis on literacy. Still, they note that the country's main police academy can handle fewer than 600 recruits at a time, or roughly 3,600 a year. NATO and Afghan officials project that the country will need 134,000 trained police officers on patrol by next summer, when foreign troops are expected to begin leaving the country.

"We want to train the new forces, and we know we need to retrain the existing ones," said Mohammad Munir Mangal, a top Interior Ministry official. "We just don't have the facilities."

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