CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — They die in assaults on lonely mountain checkpoints and in group beheadings captured on hand-held video cameras. They are engulfed by flaming car bombs and are shot at point-blank range by men who often dress up in the same plain gray uniform as theirs.
Forever maligned as corrupt, incompetent and drug-addled, Afghan National Police officers have sacrificed unlike any force in the country, foreign or domestic, taking casualties at a rate far higher than Afghan soldiers or their partners in the U.S.-led coalition.
Over the past year, 1,555 Afghan police officers have been killed. That’s more than twice the number of Afghan soldiers who died in the same period, although there are 35,000 fewer officers than soldiers in the country, according to the U.S.-led coalition. In the same period, 474 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan. The police death toll in June, 246 officers — a rate of eight a day — was 50 percent higher than in any other month in the past year.
The 135,000 Afghan police officers generally receive less training, more-rudimentary equipment and lower pay than their army colleagues. Although soldiers drive around in armored Humvees, most police officers travel in pickup trucks, even though they are often called upon to operate in areas rife with insurgents. But U.S. military officials are hoping the police can become the primary long-term solution to Afghanistan’s woes, a force they envision as growing even as the more expensive army shrinks in the future.
For now, they remain the weakest, and most regularly hammered, link in the war against the Taliban.
“The army is looked after very well — they get good food and Pepsi,” said Lt. Mohammad Qahir, 41, a police officer based at the governor’s compound in Parwan province, north of Kabul. “The police stand in the sun all day and don’t get anything.”
Qahir was away from his post on a day last month that has come to typify the grim existence of Afghanistan’s police. When he heard a commotion begin on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 14, he was unarmed, he said, because there were not enough guns to go around for the small team guarding the governor’s gate.
His colleague, Rahimullah, said that he was stationed at the door when a black Toyota Corolla pulled up and men in police uniforms demanded entry. Rahimullah said he soon recognized that the men were suicide bombers.
As the Taliban insurgents stormed the compound, Rahimullah was shot in the left leg, took grenade shrapnel in his back and broke his ankle, he said later from his hospital bed.
Another police officer, Aynuddin, woke from his nap, rolled off his cot and rushed to the doorway of the police shack. As he stepped outside, a bullet pierced his left thigh, he recalled. He fell down and passed out.
Seeing this unfold, Mohammad Azim, a 31-year-old officer who had been lounging in the shade in a blue plastic chair when the Taliban attack began, said he fired some shots from his Kalashnikov, then ran to hide in an empty kitchen as the suicide bombers stalked the grounds. He was alone. The room was dark. He had three bullets left.
“I believed they would come and kill me at any second,” Azim recalled. “At that moment, you forget about everything. You only think about yourself.”
He was not thinking about the fact that of the 15 police positions allotted for the governor’s office, only four have been filled, not including the governor’s personal bodyguards. Or that the surveillance camera affixed to the building closest to the gate was broken and hadn’t been repaired. Or that the officers don’t have body armor or helmets. Or that he makes $150 a month and supports a family of 12.
“We have three Kalashnikovs for four people. How can we defend the compound?” Qahir said. “If we were fully equipped, I swear no suicide bomber would enter the compound.”
To address the high rate of police casualties, the NATO training command in Afghanistan is giving the force 3,400 new armored Humvees over the next eight months — the police now have 1,000, and last year they had none. The training curriculum, expanded from six to eight weeks, has been revised to include more survival and first-aid training, as well as driving instruction, because some casualties stem from traffic accidents, U.S. military officials said.
The force is largely illiterate, so each student takes reading and writing classes intended to get them to at least a first-grade level.
The role of Afghan police as the first line of defense often puts them in vulnerable spots. They guard government officials who are frequent targets of assassination. They man poorly fortified checkpoints along dangerous roads, presenting a wealth of soft targets for the Taliban to choose from. With a thriving insurgency, they are often thrust into a demanding paramilitary role.
“Our job is to enforce law and order, but sometimes we’re sent to the front lines to fight, and that’s not the duty of the police,” Qahir said.
Despite these vulnerabilities, fewer police officers walk off their jobs than soldiers. In 17 of the 18 months between January 2010 and June, the rate of “attrition,” or dropouts, among police was lower than that of the army. In June, 5,027 soldiers left the Afghan army; 2,043 officers left the police force.
Police officers still have a bad reputation in many parts of the country. They’re often accused of extorting money and abusing power or operating at the whim of a local power broker or tribal leader. Their behavior in some areas has driven residents to turn to the Taliban for help.
The beleaguered officers at the Parwan governor’s office say they are committed to their jobs and country, come what may. The insurgents who attacked the compound killed at least 20 people, blew up offices, torched cars and sprayed a torrent of bullets — but the police officers were back at their jobs the next day.
“In a certain macabre way, the police did their job,” Lt. Col. Jeremy T. Siegrist, the U.S. Army battalion commander responsible for Parwan province, said as he visited the remains of the governor’s office last week. “They didn’t save the compound, but it’s still usable, and the governor’s still alive. It’s not a victory by any means, but certainly it shows the police are perhaps improving.”
Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.