Unreliable Afghan forces make life difficult, dangerous for U.S. soldiers
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 30, 2009
LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — John Roome was mad.
The first sergeant stood in the courtyard of the U-shaped building, where his soldiers were relaxing on cots on covered porches at dusk, and barked an order.
“Everyone pack up their stuff. We are leaving,” Roome announced. “The ANP (Afghan National Police) won’t pull guard, we are leaving.”
It was a dramatic threat just two days after this new American outpost was set up alongside the local government building at the Charkh District Center. But Roome saw need for drama. His soldiers were sharing an unfortified new command post with an unreliable contingent of fledgling Afghan National Police officers who were not taking security detail seriously.
“I am getting sick and tired of ANP officers in this station not doing their jobs,” Roome said, speaking through a translator a short time later when he gathered all the police officers into a back room. “By leaving your posts when you are on guard, you guys are putting my soldiers in danger and I am getting sick of it. You are all professional ANP officers and you have to start acting like professional ANP officers.”
Roome didn’t carry out his threat, and the soldiers didn’t leave. But the next morning, the soldiers found that the door of a latrine that they sometimes use at a neighboring school had been booby-trapped with a grenade. No one was hurt and a crew from the bomb squad dismantled the trap.
Still, the incident left many of the Americans wondering how unreliable members of the ANP really were.
When soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., moved their command post to be near the district center last week, their goal was to move into the heart of the population and ultimately lure people’s support away from insurgents. Part of that task is to shore up the government and the Afghan security forces so civilians can believe they have an alternative to the Taliban.
But with the ANP, the Americans fear it’s two steps forward and one step back.
Soldiers complain that the police officers are corrupt, undisciplined and lazy. They are not always willing to join soldiers on patrol or to pull guard duty, and they reportedly demand food and other items from local shopkeepers, according to troops patrolling with them.
“The ANP are mostly from the northern provinces,” said 1st Lt. Scott Davis, whose 3rd Platoon, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment’s Company B frequently patrols with the ANP. “They see this as just a tour of duty to survive. They’ve shaken down civilians for money.”
Staff Sgt. Lang Gureckis, 29, from Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which was working with Company B, said he recently made an ANP officer walk back to the outpost alone after his interpreter saw him beating a shop owner.
“We take the ANP on patrol sometimes, but it is more of a hassle,” said Gureckis, from Nashua, N.H. “People in the bazaar say, ‘This guy came yesterday, beat me up and stole all my stuff.’ The interpreters say, ‘They see you with police, and they don’t like the police.’ ”
The Afghan National Police is still developing its identity. The Americans say they would like to see something more akin to a policing unit in the States, or even state troopers, but top police administrators here frequently refer to their police officers as soldiers, and the units often see themselves more in a paramilitary position, fighting an armed enemy in combat.
ANP members are underpaid and lacking a proper model, but they could become a professional force over time, said Capt. Jason Wingert, 29, who commands the new Charkh District Center outpost.
Wingert was in Iraq in 2004 and again in 2005. When he left after his first deployment, there was no operating police force. But a year later, he came back and found a functioning national police, he said.
“The police are ineffective, but over time they will get trained,” Wingert said. “Eventually we will find the right guys who will make it work.”
There have been some shining examples. Up the road from the district center, a second team of ANP work at a checkpoint at the Dabari Bridge. One of them, Gul Alam, was considered a hard-charging police officer who worked to fight the insurgents and set up the rule of law in Charkh.
When the insurgents planted a bomb at the bridge, killing Alam and four other ANP officers, the attack highlighted the challenges for the ANP.
Charkh Police Chief Allah Mohammad Mahsovidi likes to remind Americans here that the first time U.S. forces came to Charkh two years ago, they promised villagers all kinds of things. But they never came back, establishing a pattern of mistrust.
He said the Taliban scared off many of his officers with threats.
“I had 70 guys in my organization,” he said. “A lot of them from Charkh got Taliban warnings and many left.”
He’s now down to 48 officers after the bridge attack.
Still, he says, the American presence is having a positive effect. Security is better.
“We are happy the Americans came to Charkh,” he said.
The Americans note that the police chief is doing his best with little backing. Many question the dedication of the sub-governor, Ghallam Farouq Hamayoon, who has family ties to a key insurgent in the area, according to squadron commander Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen.
At the Charkh District Center last week, Roome said he hoped that the booby-trapped latrine door was an indication that he’d gotten his point across.
“Any response at least let me know they got it,” he said. “That’s kind of a crazy way of thinking about it, but in Afghanistan it’s kind of the way you have to think about it.”
“A big thing is respect,” he added. “As soon as the local people give them respect, that is when things will start changing. As soon as they are proud of what they are doing, that’s when they will be respected.”
A few days later, insurgents attacked a contracting crew working to expand the main road through the district center. The contractor’s own security crew fought back.
But when the Americans offered to go out and take care of the situation, Hamayoon said it was an Afghan problem and he sent the ANP, who helped fight off the attackers, saving three of the workers from capture, Gukeisen said.
One ANP truck was damaged by a rocket-propelled grenade, but there were no casualties.
“I was surprised,” Gukeisen said. “But they took care of it.”