Training Afghanistan's police seen as key to future

Some of his officers are illiterate and lack uniforms and equipment. His police station is no more than a few huts ringed by blast walls and a pair of machine gun nests.

But the future of Afghanistan lies in the hands of men like Colonel Abdul Qadir Popal, as Washington pours billions of dollars into bringing government to areas of war-torn Afghanistan it says have been cleared of Taliban insurgents.

Qadir’s Police Sub-Station 15 (PSS 15) lies in the rural Mahalajat area stretching south-west from the suburbs of Kandahar city, southern Afghanistan’s economic and political hub and the heartland of the Taliban movement.

According to the US military, United States (US) and Afghan soldiers have in recent weeks managed to take control of Taliban strongholds here, as well as in the nearby districts of Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwayi.

This was Taliban territory for years but soldiers here say the insurgents mostly melted away without much of a fight—though the ubiquitous homemade bombs that have become their hallmark still kill or maim Afghan and US troops.

Getting the people’s trust is the hardest part
Now comes the hardest part of the American counter-insurgency strategy—installing basic services and local authorities that people can trust, says US Lieutenant Colonel Clay Padgett, commander of the battalion in charge of Mahalajat and other areas west of Kandahar.

Qadir is a symbol of that strategy in Mahalajat, a fertile plain of corn fields and pomegranate orchards where irrigation ditches and dirt roads bogged down Soviet tanks during a decade-long war of the 1980s.

PSS 15, one of several police sub-stations the Americans have set up in Mahalajatlies, in a field on the edge of the village of Deh-e-Masus, is a few kilometres from mountain caves in which Alexander the Great and his army once holed up more than 2 000 years ago.

Sitting on his bed last Saturday, in the tiny hut that serves as his office and sleeping quarters, Qadir pulled on a cigarette and confidently stated: “We will defeat the Taliban”.

He was hosting US Captain Ethan Olberding, who came from his heavily-fortified outpost nearby to check on PSS 15.

“We need an extra 40 AK47s and two more heavy machine guns,” the Afghan National Police (ANP) colonel told Olberding as they shared a lunch of chicken, beans and rice.

Employment could curb Taliban influence
The pair then discussed US-funded schemes to employ local men who might otherwise be lured by Taliban money to plant bombs, reviewed recent operations in the area and shared intelligence about insurgent activity.

The United States is bankrolling a massive programme by giving 9.2 billion dollars in the 2010 fiscal to build Afghanistan’s army and police so they can take over responsibility for security by 2014, as pledged by President Hamid Karzai.

By September, the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) had trained more than 136 000 Afghan army soldiers and 119 600 police, with a goal of 171 600 soldiers and 134 000 police by November 2011.

Building Afghanistan’s security forces is pivotal to US President Barack Obama’s plan to start drawing down American troops by July 2011.

The United States and NATO have more than 150 000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency which is now in its 10th year.

Advancing Afghan security means home time for US troops
As Western public opinion turns increasingly against prolonged engagement in Afghanistan, the coalition partners are looking to the Afghan security forces as the ticket home for their troops.

US Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the man in charge of training Afghan security forces, recently sent a warning to Washington’s partners, as well as Afghan authorities, saying: “No training, no transition”.

Caldwell has headed NTM-A since November 2009, building a combat-ready Afghan infantry and nurturing a police force that could be trusted by a population that generally sees the police as predatory and corrupt.

While a pay rise earlier this year has gone some way towards boosting recruitment and curbing high attrition rates, in the eyes of ordinary Afghans the police are still largely regarded as incompetent.

Focus moves to skills building
Huge literacy programmes have given tens of thousands of young Afghan men basic reading and writing skills in a country where illiteracy is put at 80%.

With foundations laid, Caldwell told AFP in a recent interview that he is now concentrating on building leadership and specialist skills.

“The Afghan police are the problem and they are the solution to the problem,” British Major General Nick Carter said this month as he handed over command of Afghanistan’s south to a US counterpart.

Senior American commanders say they are working hard on improving leadership in the force, and Olberding said Qadir, with 20 years in the police and prison service, was one of the most inspiring Afghan police chiefs he had encountered.

Qadir’s men, who like him live in huts at the police station that has neither electricity nor running water, said they were highly motivated and keen to help establish a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

But they know they could lose their lives in the attempt.

“If the Taliban knew I was in the police they would maybe kill my family,” said one 20-year-old policeman at PSS 15, who like his 60 colleagues at the base earns the equivalent of around 300 dollars a month.—AFP

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