Afghan police have Western training and facilities, but wonder how to maintain them

Afghan police in training form a defensive phalanx amid a hail of rocks as an instructor inspects them during a crowd-control drill at the Regional Police Training Center in Herat, Oct. 28, 2018. Responsibility for training police primarily belongs to Afghan mentors, with allied troops now focusing on advising at higher echelons and with Afghan special operations. J.P. Lawrence/Stars and Stripes

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2018

HERAT, Afghanistan — The police officers shook their heads while looking at the new three-story dorm for female trainees here, built with a Western largesse that left them baffled.

The two men peeked into various rooms, marveling at treadmills still wrapped in plastic, and banks of electric clothes washers and dryers. An array of dozens of air conditioning units are likely to become a chore to keep running in a province with 17 districts, hundreds of villages and nearly 2 million residents, but just two qualified air conditioning repairmen.

The police officers asked each other who was going to pay to keep the lights on. Whether or not they knew it, the expectation is that it will be foreign donors, particularly the U.S., who are building the facilities as well as the electrical grid to power many of them.

The challenges in sustaining the country’s police force, underscore some of Afghanistan’s deep dependencies on its foreign backers. Some analysts say it could take decades before the country’s defense and security forces can operate without substantial support from abroad.

While the U.S. hopes to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign cash, the Kabul government already struggles with tasks large and small, from keeping equipment humming to holding ground against a resurgent Taliban who control or contest half the country.

In Herat, which along with Kabul was named early this year as the first of two provinces where a four-year program of police reforms would be rolled out, that means equipment fails and training suffers.

“When the foreign mentors were involved, they had more resources and equipment for training,” Herat police chief Aminullah Amarkhi said. “They knew how to operate and use them.”

At Herat’s regional training center, local officials insisted the Afghans have maintained training quality in the years since they took over from foreign trainers six years ago. Still, some crowd control and pepper spray training has gone by the wayside, they said, and they struggle to maintain equipment provided by their Western backers.

On a recent Stars and Stripes visit to observe the center’s training, smiling police officers went through routines as a trainer directed photographers where to get the best shots of men clearing rooms or practicing arrests on each other. Groups of uniformed young men waited demonstrated a riot shield exercise. It seemed more like dress rehearsal than instruction.

Among the other training no longer possible are exercises using tear gas grenades and night vision goggles, said Col. Allah Noor Mohammadi, who oversees the center. That training is still available for specialized units elsewhere, he said.

As long as the enemy has rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, police in Afghanistan will have to fight like soldiers, instead of being like Western-style law and order investigators, Mohammadi said. “You cannot defend the districts with a baton,” he said.

While police often fight alongside the army on the front lines against the Taliban, they are “not sufficiently trained or equipped” for counterinsurgency operations, according to a Pentagon report on Afghan security. New efforts aim to remake the force into a professional law enforcement agency, but its policing capabilities have been held back by a focus on building combat skills.

Throughout the country, a lack of NATO advisors and indecision about how to use the police have stunted the force’s growth, compared to the army, a recent Pentagon report found.

The main military training center in Kabul, meanwhile, came under scrutiny after the facility delayed classes and after reports of unsatisfactory training, poor living conditions, and inadequate trainer support. A recent Pentagon report noted that trainees at the Kabul Military Training Center were becoming malnourished and arriving at their units in poor health and not trained to standard.

Coalition advisers have stepped in to assist, and efforts to build up the training institutions will also depend largely on coalition members committing trainers in the future, officials said in a Pentagon report this summer.

When the U.S.-led coalition peels away support and transfers greater responsibility to the Afghan government to help it mature, that means accepting a higher risk of failure. That’s what coalition officials told a government watchdog after it raised concerns earlier this year about the lack of contracts for maintenance on a $3 million female dorm in the Afghan capital, like the one newly built in Herat.

The U.S. is already set to pay the bulk of the country’s $6 billion annual defense budget through 2023, including around $766 million for conventional police forces. Kabul pays less than a tenth of the tab itself, mainly for the care and feeding of its troops.

Foreign funding, largely from the U.S., will be critical to prop up security forces until they can stand on their own for many more years, as “full self-sufficiency by 2024 does not appear realistic,” according to a December Pentagon report.

It could be decades before the country can foot the entire bill for its security forces, said Mark Sedra, a researcher who’s written extensively on efforts to reform the security sector, particularly in Afghanistan.

Recent reports of a possible U.S. pullout from Afghanistan have brought back memories of the days after the Soviets left among Afghan leaders.

Russian efforts to build up Afghanistan’s security forces couldn’t be sustained once Soviet forces withdrew and money stopped flowing from Moscow. In the decade that followed, Afghanistan descended into civil war, the Taliban rose to power and the country became a haven for al-Qaida to launch attacks on the United States.

The U.S. foray into the country has lasted twice as long, as a stubborn Taliban insurgency continues to launch deadly attacks throughout the country.

“The worsening security situation has only compounded this sustainability time bomb,” Sedra said.

Zubair Babakarkhail, Mohammad Aref Karimi and Ghulam Rasoul Murtazawie contributed to this report.

Twitter: @jplawrence3


Afghan police in training practice detaining and arresting each other at the Regional Police Training Center in Herat, Oct. 28, 2018. Responsibility for training police primarily belongs to Afghan mentors, with allied troops now focusing on advising at higher echelons and with Afghan special operations.