JALALABAD, Afghanistan — U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are upbeat about the national army, saying it demonstrated its growing effectiveness with its handling of recent riots sparked by an erroneous Newsweek item. But, they concede, the national police force still has a way to go.
The Afghan National Army, or ANA, “has been a huge success,” said Col. Gary Cheek, the outgoing commander of Regional Command East, which covers 16 provinces in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan.
“To put it into professional baseball terms, last year the Taliban were playing against an AA league team. This year, it’s against the New York Yankees.”
Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, commander of the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marine Regiment, said the biggest challenge facing the Afghan forces is to win public confidence in the face of attempts by Taliban-led insurgents and other enemies of the government to manipulate legitimate grievances into large-scale riots.
He blamed forces affiliated with former mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for inciting several days of riots in Jalalabad. The violence was sparked by the Newsweek item, later retracted, saying a U.S. interrogator at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet.
“To be perfectly honest, we were surprised,” Col. Cooling said. “We walk in that city every day. Of all the people in Afghanistan, the people of Jalalabad know us the best. And on the tactical level, we didn’t even know the [Newsweek] article existed until the demonstrations started.”
Poor training and planning by the Afghan National Police (ANP) allowed Mr. Hekmatyar’s operatives to drive most humanitarian agencies out of the city, including most U.N. staff, whose offices were torched by rioters, Col. Cooling said.
But after the initial difficulties, he said, both the ANP and the ANA proved they can handle such situations on their own.
“A year ago, we would have had no option but to go there and put down the riot ourselves,” Col. Cooling said. “That would have only inflamed passions even more and would have given anti-coalition militias a public relations victory.”
The coalition forces have drawn their lessons from the riots, he said, and both now are receiving training in crowd control.
Col. Cheek said the ANA, which now has 23,000 men and is to scheduled to grow to 39,000, has reached the stage at which its troops are able to train routinely and operate alongside U.S. forces.
“The ANA is a very disciplined force,” he said. “It’s been a huge plus, bringing security to Afghanistan. We gain a lot from their cultural perspective: They see things we don’t see.”
But, the colonel said, more work is still needed in training the ANP, which has almost 38,000 officers and plans to grow to 62,000 by October 2006.
Unlike the ANA, which is ethnically diverse and integrated, the ANP officers tend to serve near their homes, Col. Cooling said.
“They are more likely to be biased in tribal disputes or have their own criminal affiliations,” he said.
Col. Cheek said he is confident that the increased capabilities of the ANA, ANP and the Afghan Border Police will eventually allow the government to assert control over the volatile area along the border with Pakistan.
But first, they must win over a local population that is “uncertain which side they want be on,” he said. “They are with us when we are there. And when insurgents come, they support them.”
Col. Cooling said the hope is to undermine support for the rebels by increasing the legitimacy of local governments while sustaining military pressure on midlevel insurgent leaders.
“If we can eliminate local government corruption,” he said, “if we can count on district chiefs to enforce laws, not their own laws, but the laws of the national government, then maybe we can really build Disneyland in downtown Khost, as the governor dreams.”