KABUL, Afghanistan — At the gate to the National Police Academy, on the western edge of the Afghan capital, the guard's rifle bolts into firing position.
"Stop!" he shouts.
It's 4 a.m., the street lights are not working and the guard's superiors had neglected to tell him that the red Toyota Corolla would be arriving.
Time and again, suicide bombers have attacked Afghanistan's police and army outposts. So one of the first lessons taught at the academy is diligence.
The readiness of Afghanistan's security forces is central to U.S. and NATO plans to withdraw all forces from the country by the end of 2014, and the academy's new commander wants to help turn around a 146,000-strong national police force long riddled with corruption, incompetence and factional rivalries.
Such problems are not always acknowledged publicly. Late in September, President Hamid Karzai said that his military and police are prepared to take full responsibility for security if the American-led international coalition decides to speed up the handover.
And a statement released last week by the NATO-led force called the Afghan National Army the most respected institution in the country and said "the Afghan national police also rank highly."
But the National Police Academy's director, Mullah Dad Pazoish, presents a different viewpoint.
"There are police who don't even know the meaning of the word 'police,'" Mr. Pazoish said in a recent interview. "We have generals who have no training. They are the jihadi commanders."
International observers warn that the largely illiterate police force will disintegrate after 2014 into factional militias more loyal to local warlords than to the state.
There are also questions about the capability of the Afghan army, which continues to experience a high rate of attrition.
A report released in September by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that Afghan security forces are not even close to being ready to take over security nationwide.
"Only 7 percent of the army and 9 percent of the national police units are considered capable of independent action even with advisers," the report stated.
And Mr. Karzai himself complained recently that Afghan forces are not getting the weapons they need from NATO allies, suggesting Afghanistan might have to go to other countries such as China and Russia to acquire them.
Little noticed amid the criticism is that the police have taken the heaviest casualties in the war. On average, nearly 10 police officers are killed or wounded every day, according to the NATO-led force's statement.
The risks were clearly on the mind of the guard who recently pointed his weapon at the Toyota approaching the gates of the 70-year-old academy, the nation's oldest, a sprawling compound that harks back to a peaceful Afghanistan ruled by a monarchy.
Gen. Nawroz Khaliq, who took command of the academy more than eight months ago, wants to restore higher standards to the institution. A career cop with a receding hairline, Gen. Khaliq envisions an academy that will create a new generation of policemen who understand the law and are committed to upholding it.
"In 10 years this academy I promise will be as good as any in the world," he said inside his comfortable office across from the parade grounds.
A giant picture of Mr. Karzai hangs on the wall. A bouquet of dusty plastic flowers dominates a small bookcase, and plush couches line the walls.
Gen. Khaliq said the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014 could be an opportunity for Afghans to rise to the occasion and prove themselves, but he acknowledged that the job ahead is colossal.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, the academy's traditional three-year program was mostly supplanted with a new eight-week training course in the rush to turn out uniformed policemen.
Large sections of the police were drawn from the ranks of militias whose warlord leaders sit in the Afghan parliament. Others came from remote villages. Few had seen the inside of a school.
Standards for the eight-week police training program are low, according to Gen. Khaliq. There is no educational requirement. New recruits don't even have to be able to sign their name, just provide their fingerprints.
They do, however, need to be recommended by a government official, who vouches they are neither Taliban nor a criminal.