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At a police station in Kandahar City, 1st Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, planned a ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September with members of the Afghan National Police.
At a police station in Kandahar City, 1st Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, planned a ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September with members of the Afghan National Police. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
At a police station in Kandahar City, 1st Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, planned a ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September with members of the Afghan National Police.
At a police station in Kandahar City, 1st Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, planned a ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September with members of the Afghan National Police. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
Afghan policemen and American soldiers walked through a Kandahar City neighborhood near the former home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Security has recently improved in this former insurgent stronghold.
Afghan policemen and American soldiers walked through a Kandahar City neighborhood near the former home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Security has recently improved in this former insurgent stronghold. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An Afghan NDS agent waits to enter a residential compound during a joint raid by U.S. troops and Afghan security forces in Kandahar City.
An Afghan NDS agent waits to enter a residential compound during a joint raid by U.S. troops and Afghan security forces in Kandahar City. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
Afghan policemen climb to rooftop positions during a joint raid with American troops in Kandahar City in September. ''They're getting there,'' an American officer said. ''But they're not there yet.''
Afghan policemen climb to rooftop positions during a joint raid with American troops in Kandahar City in September. ''They're getting there,'' an American officer said. ''But they're not there yet.'' (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An Afghan policeman walks along a compound wall during a raid in Kandahar City.
An Afghan policeman walks along a compound wall during a raid in Kandahar City. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
Female security officers walk through a courtyard during a joint raid with American soldiers in Kandahar City this September.
Female security officers walk through a courtyard during a joint raid with American soldiers in Kandahar City this September. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
First Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, checked his maps during ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September in Kandahar City. Behind him, female Afghan security officers search the compound.
First Lt. Lee Robinson, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, checked his maps during ''soft-knock'' raid in mid-September in Kandahar City. Behind him, female Afghan security officers search the compound. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An Afghan security officer scans a courtyard during a raid in Kandahar City.
An Afghan security officer scans a courtyard during a raid in Kandahar City. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An EOD soldier retrieved an unexploded mortar round from a robot in Kandahar City in mid-September. The mortar was found by Afghan police following a tip from a citizen. ''We're seeing an increase in tips coming in from the population,'' said Lt. Col. Doug Winton, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. ''There is a growing trust between the people and the police.''
An EOD soldier retrieved an unexploded mortar round from a robot in Kandahar City in mid-September. The mortar was found by Afghan police following a tip from a citizen. ''We're seeing an increase in tips coming in from the population,'' said Lt. Col. Doug Winton, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. ''There is a growing trust between the people and the police.'' (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An Afghan security officer walks through a sunken hallway during a house search in northwestern Kandahar City.
An Afghan security officer walks through a sunken hallway during a house search in northwestern Kandahar City. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
An Afghan policewoman gives orders during the search of a compound in northwestern Kandahar City this September.
An Afghan policewoman gives orders during the search of a compound in northwestern Kandahar City this September. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
Afghan police officers during the search of a compound in northwestern Kandahar City this September.
Afghan police officers during the search of a compound in northwestern Kandahar City this September. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, prepared to enter a compound in northwestern Kandahar City with Afghan police officers in mid-September.
U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, prepared to enter a compound in northwestern Kandahar City with Afghan police officers in mid-September. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
Afghan police officers and U.S. soldiers with 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, prepared to enter a compound in northwestern Kandahar City in mid-September.
Afghan police officers and U.S. soldiers with 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, prepared to enter a compound in northwestern Kandahar City in mid-September. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
First Lt. Anna Kowalk, of 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, played basketball with an Afghan interpreter at a police station on the northwestern edge of Kandahar City.
First Lt. Anna Kowalk, of 3rd Platoon, 561st Military Police Company, played basketball with an Afghan interpreter at a police station on the northwestern edge of Kandahar City. (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)
First Lt. Anna Kowalk, at right, and her commander, Capt. Aaron Cross, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, third from right, met with elders in Kandahar City in mid-September. ''Security is definitely better,'' one local leader said. ''But if the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will immediately return.''
First Lt. Anna Kowalk, at right, and her commander, Capt. Aaron Cross, of Apache Troop, 1-10 Cavalry, third from right, met with elders in Kandahar City in mid-September. ''Security is definitely better,'' one local leader said. ''But if the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will immediately return.'' (Neil Shea/Stars and Stripes)

KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — In a place that for years has embodied the hard, mean heart of the war, hope is a knot of boys along the roadside, waving and throwing rocks.

They aim for enormous American trucks groaning down the roads, their dark windows revealing nothing, wheels pulverizing the dry earth. The trucks, dented and scarred, appear at first like survivors returning from battle. No, soldiers working here say. It’s from the kids, mostly.

“We don’t like it, but it’s fun for them,” said a cavalry soldier. “I guess like when I was a kid throwing snowballs at cars. They just don’t got snow here, they got rocks. It don’t mean they hate us.”

A rock is better than a rocket, and it’s a world better than an IED blast. Soldiers say it is a sign that things are, if not yet great, a lot less bad. Since surge troops flooded the province more than a year ago and pushed into some of the war’s most intense fighting, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the areas around it have calmed.

With news of killings and bombings still common, it is hard to believe. But from mid-June to mid-September this year, the number of U.S. troops killed in the combined areas of Kandahar City, the Arghandab Valley and the Shah Wali Kot area was down 91 percent compared with the same period last year, according to International Security Assistance Force statistics. The number of Afghans killed dropped by 57 percent.

Many Afghans, from shopkeepers to truck drivers to local city councilmen, agree the city is less violent. Within this, in the space where boys are free to behave like boys, Kandahar City possesses something important: room to breathe.

It’s a welcome change for U.S. troops and the Afghan National Police stationed here. Without the stress of combat, the partners can focus on training police to a point where they can inherit — and uphold — the hard-won calm.

Improving, slowly

First Lt. Lee Robinson stood in an earthen courtyard on a mid-September evening, watching police officers from his partner unit search dimly lit rooms around him. The officers, some in uniform, some in street clothes, rummaged and yelled to each other. Every few minutes they emerged into the courtyard, talking and arguing in a loud scrum.

From the roof, where more officers stood guard, the former compound of Taliban leader Mullah Omar could be seen to the west. If they knew it, the officers didn’t care; they looked around, sometimes waved to neighbors, holding their weapons by the muzzles like golf clubs.

Robinson was frustrated. It was an Afghan-led mission and his soldiers, part of Apache Troop, 1st Squadron of the 10th Cavalry out of Fort Carson, Colo., stood quietly by, just in case. They were more tense than the Afghans; they knew the possibilities.

Kandahar City is still a deadly place. ISAF reports that IED casualties among coalition and ANSF forces have decreased 60 percent since the summer months last year, but the allies have not been able to stop so-called spectacular attacks.

Just two weeks before Robinson’s mission, a U.S. soldier in another unit was shot in the back of the head during a foot patrol. A man simply walked up behind him and fired.

In late October, insurgents launched an attack on Camp Nathan Smith, the PRT headquarters, firing down on the base for hours from a building across the street. In July, a suicide bomber killed the city’s mayor.

“Tell these guys they have to move faster,” Robinson said to an interpreter. “They have to maintain awareness.”

A young, sharply dressed lieutenant reined in his men and plainclothes women. They sped up a little, and they talked less. But never did their movements or seriousness resemble that of the Americans.

Soldiers are routinely told by their commanders that the goal is not to re-create the American military in Afghanistan. They are told they need only get the Afghans to “good enough,” a vague measure used across Afghanistan by military and civilian officials. Good enough sometimes seems very far away.

Police work is by far the riskiest public service in the country. Policemen die more frequently than soldiers in the larger Afghan National Army. According to statistics provided by the NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan, which oversees instruction of Afghan security forces, a nationwide average of 10 ANP officers have been killed and 30 wounded each week during the last six months.

U.S. troops often complain that police ignore danger and don’t take their work seriously. Even an NTM-A spokesperson described the allies’ greatest challenge as “professionalization” of the police forces.

So soldiers like Robinson, working with private instructors from companies like DynCorp, focus on basics — shooting, searching, planning missions. Reading and writing. Instilling a sense of gravitas.

By the end of their joint operation, the ANP had searched several compounds but found no signs of the two insurgents they sought. Robinson’s soldiers and the police walked back in darkness to Police Sub-Station 12, a former bathhouse-turned-barracks they share in a northwestern neighborhood of the city.

“It went … pretty well,” Robinson said, detouring around mounds of trash and stinking mud. “We didn’t expect to find much, and we didn’t. But they handled it as good as we’ve seen them do.”

There was a long list of things that needed work. But it was late, and Robinson had come to understand certain limits.

He said relations between his soldiers and the Afghans had improved to the point where the men could concentrate more on their jobs and less on who was stealing food from the kitchen, or who kept moving the radios out of the radio room. But he wasn’t going to push it with late-night lectures.

“There’s a period in which they’re receptive, and it’s not now,” he said. “But a lot of the lieutenants have been stepping up lately. And they’ve been hiring more. I think, with the emphasis on training, things are improving.”

Robinson knew they had the lull to thank.

“If we were fighting all the time, training just wouldn’t happen,” he said.

Higher expectations

“If we were worried about the Taliban, we would not be here,” the young man said.

In a small classroom at a Camp Nathan Smith, the Afghan second lieutenant stood straight and proud in his new gray uniform. Like many of the 30 or so trainees, the lieutenant grew up near Kandahar City during the Taliban’s reign. He knew their record and it didn’t faze him.

“They are nothing,” he said, through an interpreter.

“As long as we keep training, they will be afraid of us!” said Amanullah Imly, another of the lieutenants.

The men would have plenty of training, more than many of their comrades out on the streets. The lieutenants, along with 40 more in another classroom, were cadets in a six-month officer training course that was designed not only to teach them but to surround them. It was part of the ongoing NATO push to gather, train and field its own replacements.

During the course, the men would live, eat, exercise and pray together in a secluded compound. They would not patrol the city. They wouldn’t be called to direct traffic or chase petty criminals. Within Kandahar’s calm, their days were filled.

Academy Commandant Capt. Jumagul, a 30-year police veteran, said the students made up the largest officer candidate class outside Kabul. It was proof, he said, that security had improved in Kandahar, prompting more locals to join the police.

“Two years ago, people would not join the ANP,” he said. “Now we have a lot of people coming to join. People see the changes and want to join the government. We’re recruiting over our [quota].”

First Lt. Paul Elliott, an American who assists at the academy, quickly qualified Jumagul’s remarks.

“Well, the south isn’t really making its numbers in officers now,” he said. “So they’re flooding them down from the north. Believe it or not, finding someone from Kandahar with the education requirement who wants to join is pretty hard.”

According to a report in June by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, only 20 percent of about 131,000 ANP are literate “at some level.” Police instructors in Kandahar routinely cited illiteracy as one of the police force’s greatest impediments.

The NTM-A has placed literacy among its priorities, and Capt. Ashley Norris, an NTM-A spokeswoman, said police recruits now receive 96 hours of literacy classes during basic training. The NTM-A has said it hopes to achieve 100 percent literacy among officers by 2014, when Afghan forces will assume responsibility for security in Afghanistan.

Not all police trainers are convinced that can happen — especially, one trainer at Camp Nathan Smith said, when the police often don’t show up to reading class.

But the students at Jumagul’s academy are different. He said they are vetted by the Ministry of the Interior and must possess a 12th-grade education.

Exceptions are allowed, but students who can’t read or write well enough must attend literacy classes and, in the intense surroundings of their program, they can’t skip out.

“There’s a higher expectation,” Jumagul said. “We live like a family here. Training is the most important thing.”

NATO efforts rebuked

NATO has not always considered police training a priority.

Some of the most important thinking on the role of police forces has come from researchers like Seth Jones at the RAND Corp., who in 2008 published a report on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that included a comparison of 90 other insurgencies since 1945.

Jones concluded that indigenous security forces — and specifically police — are vital in winning such wars, largely because they end up doing most of the fighting. The results were a stinging rebuke to NATO’s early efforts.

During the first years of the war, NATO largely fumbled with the police. Training standards varied, vetting was poor, even absent. The allies even argued among themselves over which methods worked best. Experts say the problems routinely described in the media today — accusations against police of rape and murder, illiteracy, drug use — reflect that disorganization.

In the last few years, the NTM-A has pushed training hard and poured equipment into the ANSF — Humvees, rifles, uniforms, air conditioners, even bunkrooms made from shipping containers.

Much of that has gone to the Afghan army, and some civilian and military officials complain it is materiel the Afghans don’t maintain and can’t repair by themselves.

But police academies like the one at Camp Nathan Smith have also been built, standards for police recruits have been raised and mostly standardized, and many Americans say cops are getting better. Police trainers in Kandahar and other areas said a younger, more motivated generation appears to be stepping up.

The rush to field more unified, insurgent-resistant security forces comes at an enormous cost. According to NTM-A numbers, the program plans to spend some $11.6 billion on Afghan National Security Forces in 2011 and roughly that much next year — the largest budgets in a decade.

Military officials have said aid will decrease as Afghan forces mature, to less than $6 billion in 2014, but the Afghan government collects only about $2 billion annually in revenue. While the international economy struggles with deep-rooted problems, some observers wonder how reductions in NATO budgets will affect training.

In the worst case, one U.S. officer said, Afghanistan may end up with swarms of half-trained policemen it cannot pay, men who might drift into private militias.

Back in the classroom, the cadets weren’t talking money or politics. They had been studying theft. When a visitor asked, most raised their hands and said they wanted to be detectives.

They may have to wait for their “Law & Order” moment. When they graduate, they will be among Afghanistan’s best-trained officers; good enough by miles, at least on paper, but the government will likely task them with basic security.

It will be dangerous work, and more violence may yet lie ahead. Many local police commanders said in interviews that they believe the Taliban are merely waiting until 2014 to refresh their assault on the government.

None of this bothered the young lieutenants. They grew excited, agitated, talking of the Taliban and their nascent sense of nationhood. To hear them tell it, the insurgents were already beaten. It was their time, they were the new posse in town.

“We all tigers!” a man shouted in English from the back of the room.

The instructor, an Afghan, stepped forward. He raised his hand and in a loud voice said, “Who here is lionhearted?”

The classroom erupted, the men shouting “Ho!” in unison and throwing up their hands, every index finger pointed to the sky.

Hard lessons

What does good enough look like?

First Lt. Anna Kowalk wonders that sometimes. She has seen its opposite.

She leads 3rd Platoon of the 561st Military Police Company and lives with her soldiers and Afghan police officers on the northern edge of Kandahar City in Police Sub-Station 9. The station sits on a hill overlooking a new women’s health center, a government office building and, farther away, tangled neighborhoods of sun-scorched mud.

Kowalk’s unit had been in the city as long as Robinson’s cavalry platoon, about three months. Like Robinson’s men, the MPs were still figuring out how to live with the Afghans, though many nights the two groups of cops gathered to watch each other play basketball or Afghan games in their shared courtyard.

But Kowalk has lost a soldier. Her platoon has become the warning, the reminder of how far there is to go, even if no real destination has been chosen.

It was Sept. 3, the days still sweltering. Kowalk’s MP’s patrolled a busy market with the Afghan police.

During joint patrols, U.S. soldiers and Afghan forces often walk in a mixed line, with Afghans in the lead — offering an “Afghan face” to the public — and picking up the rear. Spc. Christopher Scott was the last American in the line. An Afghan policeman followed behind.

The men should have been well-spaced, the Afghan officer walking several steps after Scott, opening the field of vision and allowing room for reaction. But soldiers said the Afghans had not yet grasped the concept. The last policeman was too close to Scott, right behind him. He didn’t notice a man emerge from the crowd and step into the line.

The man held a handgun. He walked up to Scott and fired once into the back of his neck.

Afghan policemen reacted quickly, Kowalk said. They turned and ran toward the blast. They also began firing at the gunman, but wildly, into the crowd.

U.S. soldiers turned and held their fire, scanning for the shooter. The man was running, but apparently he tripped, Kowalk said. As he fell he raised his gun. An MP saw it and fired, killing him.

Soldiers rushed to Scott while Afghan police locked down the street. An Afghan interpreter held Scott’s head and tried to help the American medic tend him. He died a short while later as a helicopter carried him toward the hospital at Kandahar Air Field. Two children also died, Kowalk said, likely hit by stray police bullets.

Getting to good

The day was a disaster. Any commander might have blamed the police.

“At first it was kinda easy to be pissed at them,” Kowalk said. “You know, if they’d just been paying closer attention. I was afraid that my guys would stay angry at them. But they didn’t. Overall, I think they know the Afghans were doing their best at the time.”

From the hard lesson came unexpected growth. Kowalk said the Afghans understood, later, that the attack was preventable. The police commander gave the Americans an Afghan flag that had flown over PSS 9. They sent it home to Scott’s family. Kowalk said the Afghans now took patrols more seriously.

“They were really bothered by it, too,” she said. “It brought us closer to them in the end.”

By the strange measures of war, Scott’s death was an outlier, a flare in the city’s relative calm, at least compared to the violence of the past. Two weeks later, the MPs were back to something like normal, searching houses with their ANP partners, Kowalk reminding them — just as Robinson had — “This is not social time. You can’t have tea with the guy who lives here.”

At a meeting in the government building below her police station, Kowalk and her commander met with local elders who said their city was safer. But they warned that recent gains were merely writing in the sand, easily swept away.

“There were districts that were full of Taliban, and now they’re gone,” said Hakim Sahib, a former mujahedeen fighter and wakheil, a position something like a city councilman. “And this is obviously good. But when the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will rise again. We need a permanent U.S. presence here.”

Sahib may see that wish come true in some form. A top American official in Kandahar said the U.S. had no plans to “abandon” Afghanistan after 2014, and it would not withdraw support from the province.

The official said the U.S. planned to have a “normal development relationship” with Afghanistan, which could mean sizable aid packages tailored to the military and police, similar to what the U.S. provides Egypt and Pakistan.

Still, those details were vague and far off, a kind of bureaucratic wishful thinking. They mean little in the scheme of Kowalk’s work.

The surge troops that helped provide Kandahar’s breathing room are departing, and American commanders recently announced that some troops stationed in the city will redeploy to more violent zones in the south of the province.

No one can say how those departures will affect the city. For now, Kowalk’s MPs will remain, still dealing with basics. Reminding policemen that raids are not social calls, that mundane patrols can turn deadly.

“I don’t know how good the Afghans need to be,” she said. “They want to learn. But can they get to the point where they’ll be able to handle it themselves?”

The lieutenant shrugged and reached for a cigarette.

“Most of the police tell us that when we leave, they’ll leave,” she said. “They just don’t have a lot of confidence yet.”

It’s one more stop on the way to good enough.

shean@estripes.osd.mil

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