Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
An effective Afghan police force: still wishful thinking
U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated on Monday his belief that the Afghan police and army had to grow in order to pave the way for a United States and NATO military drawdown in Afghanistan.
Strengthening Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces has always been one of the main planks of the NATO-led ISAF military strategy. But the Afghan police have a lot of problems. The are often accused of endemic corruption, colluding with Taliban insurgents, being poorly trained and badly organised. In some areas, we have reported before, their criminal behaviour has actually turned the communities they are meant to serve toward the Taliban, unwittingly empowering the insurgency.
The United States and its allies have spent billions of dollars on the Afghan police, but as this July report, funded by the European Commission states, “sustainable returns on investment seem very limited”. The report is still one of the most forthright and frank accounts of the problems facing the Afghan police.
The report points to five major problems facing police: 1) forced to take on military responsibilities sometimes such as engaging militants in gunfights, 2) lack of trust by Afghans 3) lack of training and equipment 4) a very high level of illiteracy and 5) allegations of endemic corruption.
In the field they do sometimes look like a bit of a motley crew. It is not unusual to see police on patrol wearing casual shoes or sandals with no socks. They like to customise their uniforms with unusual jewellery and quite a few like to decorate their Kalashnikov rifles with stickers, flowers and colourful tassles.
These few anecdotes do not of course accurately reflect the entire 80,000 and more individuals who make up the force. But with a target to recruit another 80,000 Afghans, the Interior Ministry really have their work cut out, considering the rather limited human resources Afghanistan has to offer.
There is no shortage of unemployed young people in Afghanistan and as one of the world’s poorest countries it is not difficult to recruit people en masse here. Government recruitment can also be a means of deterring the poor from joining the insurgency. But finding healthy and educated young men and women who want to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world for little more than $100 a month, is another matter entirely.
Decades of conflict and the subjugation and exclusion of women from education and the workforce during the Taliban government have severely retarded infrastructure, the economy and literacy levels in Afghanistan.
Just under one third of Afghans are educated, that’s about 10 million people. And while women are allowed to join the police force they still represent a tiny minority because in many parts of Afghanistan it is still a cultural taboo for them to work. Potential recruits also must have a spotless criminal background and be aged between 17 and 25 with proof that they graduated high school. By and large only Afghans in the country’s handful of urban centres would have gone to high school. In remote, dangerous, insurgent-riddled districts where populations are largely uneducated, schools are scant and where the overlap between law enforcement and counter-insurgency is most acute, it is difficult to find enough people to match the police’s employment criteria.
Other jobs in the myriad NGOs and foreign companies which have mushroomed in Kabul since the war started in 2001offer safer and better paid opportunities to literate Afghans than law enforcement. Those who speak English also have an incentive to work as translators for U.S. and other NATO-contributing military forces by the tempting offer of a visa and eventual U.S. citizenship after at least two years of good service. There is no such carrot dangling before aspiring police trainees.
Afghan police are working in a war zone, where they are often the first target of insurgents, something which worries their commanders who say their policemen are forced to act as paramilitaries and adopt the posture of an offensive army. Given the weakness of the rule of law in Afghanistan because of the insurgency and effects of war, perhaps the idea of an effective and law-abiding police force is, for now, just wishful thinking.
[Top: An Afghan policeman filming with his camera phone in Tarin Kowrt, southern Uruzgan province/Tim Wimborne (Reuters); Above: An Afghan policeman takes a nap in Zhari district, southern Kandahar province/Stefano Rellandini (Reuters)]