- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

OMANA, Afghanistan | It was dark, and most of the policemen were asleep when militants stormed the district center with a hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

The damage from the recent attack was extensive. Afterward, broken glass and rubble littered the ground. Two officers were killed, and three were missing. Streaks of blood marked the scene, a lonely outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, on the border with Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.

Inside one of the rooms, a policeman had scrawled on the wall in charcoal: “We are all dogs for staying here.”

The Afghan National Police (ANP) has improved in recent years, but it is still a work in progress. Poorly equipped and accused of corruption, the force lags far behind the better-trained and better-armed national army.

The work is made more difficult by a broad range of responsibilities that go beyond everyday law enforcement and includes fighting Taliban insurgents and other criminal groups in increasingly hostile backcountry areas.

The force suffers from systemic corruption that is fast eroding what little public trust remains in the central government, according to a report released this month by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

“The police still have a bad reputation among the population at large amidst a perceived rise in crime,” said Joanna Nathan, the Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Kabul, noting suspected police involvement in a series of high-profile kidnappings and the collection of illegal “tolls” on roads to supplement a meager income.

“At the same time,” she added, “they are being targeted by the insurgents as some of the few representatives of government at a local level and are sustaining enormous casualties.”

Last year, there were nearly 1,200 insurgency-related police deaths, according to Interior Ministry figures. Comparable numbers are expected this year as insurgents have stepped up hit-and-run attacks in remote areas.

Zemarai Bashary, a ministry spokesman, said progress has been made since last year. Another 20,000 police officers have undergone training, thanks to $3.8 billion in U.S. aid in 2007 and 2008, bringing the total force level up to about 82,000.

However, problems persist, he said, and none greater than the lack of heavy weapons and money to compete with well-heeled Taliban commanders, who are able to pay their fighters four times as much.

“The police are directly involved in counterinsurgency efforts on the ground every day. They require big work and strong support,” he said.

Critics point out that wholesale graft within the Interior Ministry has stalled efforts to build the force and has fed popular disillusionment, a problem Mr. Bashary acknowledges.

He said the new, reform-minded minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has spelled out a series of initiatives to clean up the ministry and is “determined to fight corruption from the top down.”

Mr. Atmar, named to the post two months ago, has pledged to pursue “real reforms” and to announce new leadership in the police structure in the coming weeks.

Improvement in the police force is key to U.S. efforts to stabilize the country. Washington is expected to deploy an additional 20,000 troops next year, bringing the U.S. total to more than 50,000.

At a recent security conference in Bahrain, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said an improved Afghan army and improved police are “our ticket out” of Afghanistan.

“The final point is corruption, corruption, corruption; it is endemic,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the U.S. force that trains the Afghan army and police, in a recent interview with Reuters.

“It has amazed me in my time here how Afghans will hurt other Afghans — when they have been given a great opportunity to … run a program that is going to help so many … and [instead] basically take care of themselves first.”

The Crisis Group said police reform must include a reorientation toward law enforcement instead of fighting the insurgency.

The European Union, which has nominally headed police training to date, has failed to come up with a comprehensive strategy to unify training efforts, the group’s report said. It is “dwarfed by the U.S., which too often views the police as an auxiliary security force.”

The army has “stepped into the breach,” according to Ms. Nathan, but that is not sufficient.

Policing, she said, is key to securing every Afghan goal: security, human rights and investor confidence.

Outside the Omana district center the morning after the deadly attack, Lt. Col. Anthony DeMartino of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment known as “Red Currahee,” sought to reassure shaken policemen that help was on the way.

Haidar Akram Khan, 23, said he’d served in the police for two years but was having doubts about staying on. His monthly salary of $100 was three months overdue. He wore no uniform or body armor and had just 16 bullets to his name.

“Men are dying every day and no one wants to join us,” he said, explaining that several other policemen had abandoned the station during the firefight. “If they keep attacking and no one helps, then no one will be around to fight.”

Col. DeMartino gave Mr. Khan some phone numbers. In case of emergency, he could now directly call U.S. forces based out of Forward Operating Base Sharana, about two hours’ drive away over hard terrain.

“The police should never run away. And the police should never fight alone,” the lieutenant colonel said. “My guys are the fighters. We will do everything we can to help.”

Less than 48 hours later, the district center was hit again.

A policeman was shot in the leg in the attack. This time, a medevac helicopter was called by officers of the 1-506th to fly the wounded man north of the capital to Bagram Air Field for treatment.

This was a compromise in standard military procedure, which mandates that a U.S. soldier be on the ground to verify the situation before a helicopter can be dispatched.

When the troops returned, police morale was higher than when they first showed up, said Maj. Rob Fouche.

In preparation for future attacks, a joint command center is in the works that will have Afghan police, Afghan army and coalition forces on standby to coordinate quick response.

“As a fighter, I realize that we must take care of them, especially when they’re hurt,” said Maj. Fouche. “Otherwise, they just won’t be willing to risk their lives.”

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