The following was first published as part of a series on foreign policy challenges facing Barack Obama for The National on January 31, 2009
Barack Obama has made securing Afghanistan the central pillar of his administration’s foreign policy platform. His decision to appoint Richard Holbrooke, a widely respected US diplomat, as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan emphasises the administration’s concern for the deteriorating security situation in the region.
Yet, according to many experts, US efforts in Afghanistan have focused too much on fighting the Taliban to the detriment of other more urgent needs, such as establishing security. They have urged Mr Obama to refocus US efforts or risk losing the war.
For many Afghans their greatest concern is not the Taliban, but the rising crime rate. Murder, kidnapping and sexual assault are on the rise and without a competent police force the central government cannot adequately protect its citizens.
The efforts to field a modern, professional force is plagued by numerous issues, but insufficient training, poor morale and lack of pay are some of the key problems.
Although statistics are hard to come by, Joanna Nathan, the senior analyst at the Kabul office of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said that even “the perceptions of a crime wave in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat” are enough to alienate the Afghan population from their government.
“These are major population centres filled with people who have no love of the Taliban, but they are growing increasingly disillusioned when they perceive that the government is not able to protect them from criminals.”
According to Ms Nathan, without the ability to provide security, “the central authorities cannot perform the basic function upon which government legitimacy rests”.
Part of the problem arises from the lack of co-ordination between the countries involved in Afghanistan. The majority of police training efforts are led by the United States; however, the European Union and other coalition partners have parallel programmes of their own. According to the ICG’s analysis of the training programmes, this multiplicity of efforts is expanding, compounding the problem.
Risto Lammi, the head of the International Policing Co-ordination Board secretariat, the organisation attempting to co-ordinate the divergent programmes, said in an interview in October that the training efforts had “no definite, single umbrella or point with overall authority on police programmes and a chain of command with clear division of work [between the players].”
This has begun to change. The United States has funnelled US$3.8 billion (Dh14bn) into training efforts over the past two years, and there has been a greater push for co-ordination of programmes. In 2007, the International Policing Co-ordination Board was established to oversee all training efforts.
While such co-operative councils are vital, they do little to directly impact the concerns of ordinary Afghans. Instead, it has been the Focused District Development, a US programme to train, mentor and develop local police on a district by district basis that has been welcomed by most citizens.
The process involves taking the local police force out of the district for eight weeks of training. They return as an elite-style force named the Afghan Civil Order Police.
The programme has worked so well that locals often beg to keep the retrained force in their district, according to Sloan Mann, the managing director of Development Transformations, a company that specialises in civilian-military integration.
However, according to the ICG’s Ms Nathan, district-by-district training is “the start – not the end – of a process”. Unless accompanied by the “political will from the top to change things and really tackle corrupt systems and abusive leaders”, this mentoring programme will fall short of what is needed to protect the civilian population, she said.
Dr Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, agrees that the challenge for the new US administration and the Afghan government will be tackling “corruption, low salaries, poor equipment and poor leadership” in the police.
Police chiefs are often political appointees who exploit their position and their subordinates for personal gain, said Mr Mann, who, prior to establishing Development Transformations, was a development adviser with the United States Agency for International Development attached to the US Special Forces command.
Mr Mann said he had heard of several police chiefs in Farah, Oruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand provinces who were purportedly in command of up to 15 officers, but employed less than half that number, keeping the salaries of the rest.
Those police officers genuinely employed often have trouble receiving their pay on time, or at all.
For some officers, their only means of pay are ad hoc roadblocks where they demand tolls from lorry drivers.
Many are also reduced to making mafia-like demands of protection money from shopkeepers, which undermines their credibility with the local populace. “If the police are forced to steal from the people and not able to do their jobs, then we have a problem,” said Mr Mann.
With the odds stacked so high against the police, an entire culture must be adjusted before programmes such as the FDD can have their full intended effect. “It is no use simply training someone and sending them out into the same conditions,” said Ms Nathan.
The effects of corrupt bosses and insufficient support from the government have had a noticeable impact on morale. Attrition rates among the police force are around 21 per cent annually. Without pay, many are unable to afford to remain in the force or resort to bribe taking. Others become heroin addicts.
These all contribute to the poor reputation of the police and hamper recruiting efforts. And while there are some good and professional police in Afghanistan, they feel that “the system is stacked against them”, said Ms Nathan. “If corruption at the centre means that appointments are made for large bribes rather than merit, then they are undermined.”
The Taliban has used the perceived corruption in the police force to score propaganda victories. A proclamation from the spiritual head of the organisation, Mullah Omar, said: “If the police of a state consists of people who are immoral and irreligious, who are drug addicts and whom their families turn away, how can they protect the property, dignity and honour of the people?”
The insurgency makes a point to target the police during its raids, both because they view them as the more lightly armed and poorly trained element of the Afghan Security Forces, and because they are so widely reviled by Afghans. As a result, deaths among police from insurgent attacks are three times higher than in the army. According to the Commanding General of CSTC-A, Major Gen Robert Cone, 17 per cent of the police force is thought to be dead or wounded.
Violence is growing: 2008 was the deadliest year for US troops. A leaked draft of the latest US National Intelligence Estimate described the country as being in a “downwards spiral”.
The lack of effective policing means that many villagers are now looking to the Taliban to protect them and Mr Obama must make tackling security a top goal of any new strategy, Ms Nathan said.
What the Afghans want is protection from criminals, including those in their own government, she said.
“The majority of people are still far more scared what would happen if the foreign forces left than if they stay,” said Ms Nathan.
“Harnessing this popular goodwill and making sure it is not lost any further is crucial.”