Afghan police slow to earn trust of Americans
December 9, 2009
WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The Afghan police chief asked why the Americans still had their armor on after entering his unit’s compound during a recent visit.
Army 1st Lt. Julian Stewart didn’t want to appear rude. Keeping things calm, he knew, is a key part of working with the Afghan National Police.
“He said it showed disrespect to him because we didn’t trust his police officers,” said Stewart, part of a police mentoring team from the Georgia National Guard’s Company A, 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, which was working in the rural Kabul province. “We decided to take our gear off.”
Soon afterward, an Afghan policeman opened fire on the Americans, spraying the area with what Stewart estimated to be between 40 to 50 rounds. One U.S. soldier was wounded.
The Americans returned fire during the Sept. 12 incident, dropping the policeman.
“He kept repeating in Dari, ‘I did this for my prophet,’ ” Stewart said. “The whole time we’re doing this, the ANP are doing nothing.”
The United States is counting on an expanded Afghan National Police force to shoulder increasing responsibility for securing the nation against Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, and accelerated training for Afghan soldiers and police is a key part of President Barack Obama’s expanded Afghanistan mission.
First, however, American soldiers have to figure out how to trust their Afghan counterparts, riven by corruption, illiteracy and Taliban infiltration.
“The guy you trusted yesterday,” noted Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Myers, who lives alongside Afghan police forces at Combat Outpost Apache, “could be the guy planting the IED in the road today.”
No one knows for certain how often Afghan forces have attacked NATO troops. While it logs friendly-fire incidents within its own ranks, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force says it does not track incidents of Afghan forces attacking their ISAF counterparts.
But there have been deadly incidents. In November, an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers in Helmand province. The killer fled and has not been caught.
U.S. Army Sgt. Aaron Smith and Pfc. Brandon Owens were killed Oct. 2 in Wardak province by a policeman who is said to have been mentally unstable before he was approached and paid off by the Taliban. He, too, remains at large.
A joint U.S. Army-Afghan police investigation into the deaths of Owens and Smith continues, according to Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, who commands Smith’s unit, the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.
NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan spokesman Army Lt. Col. David Hylton said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes that a joint investigation is also being conducted into last month’s Helmand shooting.
Regardless of the attacks, NATO troops have no choice but to continue working with the Afghan forces.
“There’s no getting around the fact that it has an effect,” Gallahue said. “But we have to overcome it. The beginning of the future of Afghanistan is a security force that can protect its own citizens.”
Sick of ‘doing his job’A faint scent of hashish greeted 118th Military Police Company soldiers last month as they entered an Afghan police compound in Wardak province’s Jalrez valley.
Soon, Army Sgt. Joshua Watkins was talking business with Maj. Abdullah Kareem, who was put in charge of the valley’s police force a few months ago.
Watkins asked for a definitive head count of corporals, sergeants and officers.
Kareem didn’t have the numbers and went on to tell him that the numerous policemen claiming to be deputy commander were doing so simply to get things from the Americans.
“That’s [expletive] up,” Watkins said, and business turned a little more serious.
“He’s good at talking, but he can’t force anything,” Kareem said of Watkins. “You are responsible for [Combat Outpost] Apache; I am responsible for this valley.”
“I am responsible for him because he’s too lazy,” Watkins said dryly to his interpreter, eliciting nervous laughter in the room as it was translated. “I am tired of doing his job.”
Another tense exchange between two would-be partners, with much left unspoken.
Watkins later emphasized the patience required to work with the local police, but other soldiers say the culture of corruption in Afghanistan and unprofessionalism of its police make trusting them that much harder.
In addition to abusing their power, the Afghan police are often seen by the public as lazy and remiss in their duties, according to a report released last summer by London’s Royal United Services Institute and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Those problems are exacerbated by widespread drug abuse, according to the report. British officials estimate, for example, that 60 percent of the Afghan police officers in Helmand province use drugs.
“The ANP as a collective is riddled with problems starting with illiteracy, levels of which are currently estimated at 65 percent of the population,” the report states. “This fundamental problem restricts the quality of recruits, the effectiveness of police training, and even their ability to write reports and record critical information.”
In Logar province’s Charkh district, a volatile area south of Kabul, Afghan police officers rarely leave the tiny base they share with American and Afghan soldiers. They never patrol, and go out only to get food and other items from the nearby bazaar, said Capt. Jason Wingeart, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment.
Gallahue called the Afghan police “grossly undermanned and grossly underpaid.”
There are approximately 700 policemen in Wardak province, Gallahue said. Though the Interior Ministry recently raised the monthly payments for all policemen, with the starting salary at $165 a month, the cost of living here is about $430 a month, meaning police with money problems are more susceptible to bribes and payoffs for placing bombs or tipping off insurgents when an American convoy is set to roll out.
Yet the Afghan Ministry of the Interior has no mechanism to fight corruption and no effective internal affairs division, Gallahue said, as well as no transparency or accountability.