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A blue line in Afghanistan

Police give reason to be optimistic

Afghan police officers take up positions near the scene of a suicide attack in Jalalabad last month.
Afghan police officers take up positions near the scene of a suicide attack in Jalalabad last month. (Rahmat Gul/associated Press)
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By Michael O'Hanlon
Monday, November 16, 2009

As President Obama wrestles with whether to send more troops to Afghanistan despite widespread corruption in the government of Hamid Karzai, little attention is being paid to a promising dimension of our efforts to foster reform -- a much better approach to building the Afghan police force. This anticorruption agenda does not reduce the need to battle kleptocratic trends in Kabul, but it is a big reason for hopefulness.

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Although the Afghan police force has shown pockets of promise, and many officers risk their lives daily in defense of their nation, the force has long been a major disappointment. Corruption and drug abuse are rampant. Many citizens prefer to encounter roadblocks and checkpoints run by the Taliban rather than the police because of the latter's penchant for extortion. (On a recent visit to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, I heard about an informal survey of truck drivers in the south that suggested they must pay an average of five or six bribes to the police per journey. More encouragingly, the same poll reported few, if any, extortion demands at army-maintained checkpoints.) Training has been shoddy: In years past, only 20 to 25 percent of police officers received any training before starting the job. Those who join the force frequently quit, sometimes to join the resistance, which often pays better.

But much of this is changing. While there is still a long way to go, new efforts at police reform point to a more encouraging paradigm for improving the competence and integrity of key Afghan institutions.

A bill before parliament is likely to soon increase police pay and benefits for the survivors of officers killed in the line of duty. This is expected to help reduce the tendency of police to demand bribes from fellow citizens.

Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who oversees the police, has begun imposing tougher standards on provincial chiefs of police to avoid corruption, and he has sacked some of those who have failed to comply. Atmar's actions underscore the point that, while the Karzai government and the president have flaws, Karzai has appointed some good people who are acting responsibly.

The chief U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has proposed "partnering" with Afghan forces. Under this concept, every Afghan army and police unit would be teamed with a NATO formation of comparable size. The affiliated units would live, train, deploy, patrol and fight together for a period of at least months. From having virtually no training, most police units are now to undergo many months, and perhaps years, of serious apprenticeship.

Individual American units in the field, such as those under Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson in Helmand province, are beginning basic-training regimens for Afghans on their bases, but the partnering concept is even more important. It will give NATO forces much better information about who are the dependable leaders in Afghan security forces and who are not. With that information, we can appeal to the appropriate Afghan officials to replace incompetent and corrupt subordinates, reinforcing and aiding Atmar's willingness to do so himself.

Plans for improving the police force go beyond the corruption issue. By enlarging the force from its current size, about 95,000, to 160,000 in the coming years, overworked units will get breaks more frequently.

That should reduce the very high AWOL and attrition rates plaguing both the Afghan police and army. The NATO partnering concept also should provide police with more backup when units encounter Taliban ambushes or other challenging situations -- which should lower their casualties.

Police reform has been aided by our military buildup. This year's addition of 30,000 U.S. troops, while inadequate to cover much of the country's crucial south and east, has created zones of security where tribal chiefs feel comfortable recommending police work to their youth -- and asking the Afghan and NATO forces there to accept them as recruits. Police work now carries more prestige in certain places, improving the caliber of individuals willing to sign up. Additional U.S. forces could reinforce these trends, a powerful argument in favor of McChrystal's proposal for more troops.

As Obama contemplates McChrystal's troop request while also looking for ways to gain leverage with Karzai and boost anticorruption efforts, we should remember that in Iraq, systematic reform of the national police was a key element in the success of the 2007 surge. It helped with security as well as anticorruption efforts. The same thing is beginning to happen in Afghanistan -- and is a key reason there should be more hopefulness about our mission.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program, is the author of "The Science of War."



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