- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Outgunned, outmanned, poorly trained and underpaid, Afghan police are a weak link in the U.S.-led effort to stabilize the country and must improve or risk jeopardizing security seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government.

The challenge is particularly acute in the southeastern corner of the country - the former Taliban heartland - where militants and criminal gangs strike with alarming frequency. Ambushes, assassinations and hijackings are common.

A recent insurgent attack on Kandahar city’s prison freed more than 1,000 inmates, including about 400 Taliban fighters.

Often, the only defense against gangs or the Taliban is the local police. But officers question whether it’s worth risking their lives for a salary equivalent to about $100 a month.

Compared with the Taliban, who have rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and high-quality AK-47 assault rifles from Russia, “our weapons are no good,” said Col. Abdulghafar Noorzi, deputy police chief in the city of Kandahar.

“The police are very weak,” said Najibulla, a laborer in a mineral water factory who is in his 30s and, like many other Afghans, uses only one name.

Concerned about rising insecurity, the United States is poised to move more U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year from Iraq and to continue to expand the Afghan army. But police are also a major priority.

After three years of focusing on the army, NATO is six months into an ambitious project to overhaul, reform and rearm the Afghan national police as part of a $7 billion security initiative. Progress has been minimal.

A stop last month at a police checkpoint in the center of Kandahar city revealed some of the challenges. Officers had no sandbags, concrete barriers or fortifications for protection. Many of the young recruits lacked formal training and complained about equipment.

“My gun locks after firing five times,” said Amanullah, 23, displaying his Chinese-manufactured AK-47.

Standing nearby, Abdul Malik, 16, wore a brown utility vest packed with clips of ammunition over his blue T-shirt. He looked more like an adolescent playing a game than a police officer trying to defend his country.

Col. Noorzi described many of his young recruits as “fragile hens that are let out of their cage in the open under the sun” and are “blind to oncoming ambushes and attacks.”

Even with few screening standards, the force is short-staffed. Police officials in the city said there were 3,666 officers as of July 14 in Kandahar province, which is spread over nearly 21,000 square miles.

Of the government’s 76,000 police officers, more are deployed to Kandahar than to any other province, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashari said. But he conceded: “We can only work with what we have.”

A prevailing lack of trust between citizens and the police compounds the challenges. Residents accuse the police of corruption and improper conduct.

Mohammed Khalid, 24, owner of a cell phone shop, said many police officers wear civilian clothes, so “it’s hard to tell the Taliban from the police or from the criminals.”

Policemen here are understandably reluctant to maintain a high profile. According to the Interior Ministry, 230 policemen were killed and 320 were injured in Kandahar last year, primarily in counterinsurgency operations.

“If I could find another job, even if it paid less, I would take it,” said Mohammed Naim, 19, who had just survived a roadside bombing on his convoy that killed five of his colleagues.

Rookie policemen earn 5,000 afghanis monthly, or nearly $100; officers receive between 7,000 and 18,000 afghanis - $142 to $367. For those new to the force, the salary rarely supports a family.

“My grandmother has to go out and beg in the streets,” said Abdul, the teenage policeman. He is the only worker in his household, which includes his widowed mother and five younger siblings.

As tensions escalate, Col. Noorzi blames most of the police deficiencies on the NATO forces in the area.

“They’re tying our hands and legs and throwing us in front of the Taliban,” Col. Noorzi said of NATO, which has 51,000 troops from 40 countries on the ground in Afghanistan, including 30,000Americans.

Most of the 2,500 troops in Kandahar are Canadian.

Lt. Col. John Pumphrey, a Canadian military police officer who oversees deployment of the Afghan National Police in the southern provinces, said the NATO program aims to bolster the police through basic training, teaching military-style survival skills, exchanging old weapons for new ones and a 10-month mentoring program with veteran police and security specialists.

None of those efforts will matter if civilians continue to turn against the government as many appear to be doing.

Some police commanders and tribal elders attribute the strengthening insurgency to the government’s failure to garner support and trust among locals by not fulfilling pledges to rebuild and provide security, new jobs, health care, adequate utilities and other basic services.

Because “the government is weak and hasn’t kept their promises,” many people simply cooperate with the Taliban, Col. Noorzi said.

Zarghona Kakar, a tribal elder, said the local population is increasingly “ready to go over to the Taliban because the government is acting carelessly. The Taliban can defeat them if others continue to join.”

She said more people are prepared to join the insurgency because her constituents “have nothing.”

“How can they live with empty hands?”

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