Calling All Police Officers
Last December, President Barack Obama spoke to the American people and drove home the point that U.S. forces would begin to leave Afghanistan in July of 2011. But ever since that West Point speech, Democrats and Republicans on Capital Hill have been debating about what exactly the President meant by withdraw. Are U.S. troops going to quickly pack up their gear and head home overnight like ghosts in the wind after nearly a decade of war, like Vice President Joe Biden implied to a Newsweek reporter? Or is that date simply the start of a long process of withdrawal, where the pace would be determined by conditions on the ground, as General David Petraeus stated in front of Congress during his confirmation hearing?
To this day, insiders and outsiders alike still don’t really know the answer. In fact, from reading the news, it doesn’t look like the Obama administration knows what the answer is either. Staffers and senior administration officials say each member of Obama’s team is on the same page with the President’s current strategy, whether it’s working with Hamid Karzai, reaching out to Taliban militants, or engaging local tribal leaders in Pashtun villages. But this argument is clouded by the fact that both the Vice President and the newly confirmed U.S. Commander hold different interpretations on some central themes of Washington’s strategy, such as the pace and scope of the American commitment.
Regardless of what the answer is, a key tenant of the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan is still being overlooked; the training of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force (there is one man, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, who is the exception). And this is a sad state of affairs, because these are the two forces that will eventually be tasked with taking over what the U.S. leaves behind.
Whether U.S. forces will depart in a quick manner or over a longer period of time is actually a trivial point at the moment. What is significant is that American troops will surely start to begin the process of disappearing from Afghanistan next July. But if U.S. forces are expected to follow the July timeline and salvage whatever successes they have made across the country, you would think that creating an independent and transparent Afghan police force would be a top priority.
Unfortunately, it appears that pressuring the Taliban for short-term tactical victories against the insurgency is more important than building a more secure long-term future for Afghan civilians. This wouldn’t be such a pressing lapse in judgment if the ANSF were already professional, but this is anything but the case.
As of today, the Afghan Police Force is still considered by Afghans and internationals alike as one of the most corrupt institutions in the entire country. Stealing and pillaging aside- which are still pretty horrific crimes from a police standpoint- there are disturbing examples of policemen kidnapping and sometimes killing civilians to quench their thirst either for money or revenge. Intimidation of civilians is not uncommon, desertion is high, drug abuse is rampant (British estimates are as high as 60 percent in Helmand Province), and many policemen simply look the other way when drug traffickers try to move their products. The drug trade is easy money in Afghanistan, and reports from virtually every international security think-tank recognize that some in the ANP get a cut of the action.
All of these problems are not only discrediting to the United States, who in some ways are only edging this activity along by not strictly confronting it. They are also main reasons why so many Afghans (especially in the South) are reluctant to cooperate with the police in counterinsurgency operations. There is no trust between the people who are supposed to protect the local population and enforce the laws of Afghanistan’s constitution. In fact, in some areas (like Kandahar), the lack of trust between the two sides has gotten so bad that citizens actually prefer the Taliban to the ANP. While the Afghan National Army does not have such a bad reputation, they too have their list of problems, like drug use, absenteeism, and mismanagement).
Surely the United States is not solely to blame for the lackluster performance of Afghanistan’s security forces. But Washington’s obsession in numbers doesn’t exactly alleviate the situation either. There seems to be a universal belief that Afghanistan can be turned around- and Taliban influence can be contained- if Afghan security personnel reach a certain number, like 200,00 or 300,000. But all of the policemen in the world will not help Afghanistan become a semi-stable country if the quality is below average.
In some ways, the United States suffers from this very same problem. In some American cities, citizens trust gangs and other criminal organization’s more than police officers, because gang’s protect the neighborhoods and police officers are viewed as predatory (whether this is actually true is up for debate). Afghanistan is in much the same situation, although multiplied by 100. If civilian authorities don’t deliver, there reputation gets damaged, or worst, destroyed. Only solid training program, with strict benchmarks in firearms, community policing, community interaction, and respectable wages will this reputation improve.
It’s an old saying, but quality should overtake quantity. General David Petraeus and his colleagues- specifically Lt. Gen. William Caldwell- should begin to stress the quality of Afghanistan’s police officers rather than the quantity. A force that employs a few officers who are both proficient and impartial at what they do is a much better scenario for Afghan security than a force with thousands of officers who have no idea how to start a criminal investigation or file a civilian complaint.
Afghanistan is not a lost cause yet, but it will be if the counterinsurgency approach is not followed properly.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Ronald E. Neumann at FP.com. Neumann was a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2005 to 2007**