NYT : Overhaul of Afghan Police Is New Priority

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Overhaul of Afghan Police Is New Priority

By DAVID ROHDE | October 18, 2007

American military officials are carrying out a sweeping $2.5 billion overhaul of Afghanistan’s police force that will include retraining the country’s entire 72,000-member force and embedding 2,350 American and European advisers in police stations across the country.

The new effort represents a vast expansion of the current American program and is the third significant attempt to bolster the country’s feeble police force since the American-led invasion in 2001.

Improving the police force is a key to defeating the Taliban and salvaging the credibility of the central government, which is widely viewed as corrupt, these military officials say.

Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone took over the Afghan effort in July after revamping the training of American troops bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. “I want in every district in this country the same kind of full-court press,” the general said in a recent interview in Kabul. “I want to break the corruption.”

Some American and Afghan officials involved in the overhaul warn that corruption, drug trafficking and rising lawlessness pose graver threats to the government than even the Taliban.

Without a serious drive to end the corruption, they say, any effort to improve the police force may well fail — and many hundreds of millions of dollars will have been wasted. But that is something President Hamid Karzai has failed to do for years, the military officials say.

One example they point to is Mr. Karzai’s January appointment of Izzatullah Wasifi, an Afghan-American convicted of selling heroin in Las Vegas 20 years ago, as the head of the government’s new anticorruption body. Mr. Wasifi, whose father supported Mr. Karzai against the Taliban, has called the conviction a youthful mistake in news interviews.

Also, a widespread public perception exists that Mr. Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is involved in drug trafficking. So much so that Western officials say they have long urged him to have his brother leave the country, though they acknowledge that there is no definitive proof of wrongdoing.

Rooting out the corruption in the force is a gargantuan task. After leaving police training to Germany for the first two years after the fall of the Taliban, the United States has steadily increased what it spends on the task.

In 2005, the military took over from the State Department and spent more than $2 billion on equipment and increased pay for the police. It has become clear that retraining is needed, as well.

The weakness of the national police force has contributed to Afghanistan’s becoming the world’s largest producer of opium. Last year, after another bumper crop, it produced 93 percent of world supply, according to the United Nations.

The international effort to train a new police force, meanwhile, has been beset by infighting, inconsistency and a slow pace. For the first two and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, no systematic police-training program existed outside of the Afghan capital, Kabul, according to American and Afghan officials.

The United States focused on training a new multiethnic army and paid little attention to the need for a capable police force. Germany pledged to train a new force but sent only 40 police advisers to Kabul.

In 2004, the State Department hired a private contractor to train Afghan police. Afghan officials complained that the training program was only two weeks long. The State Department said there was an urgent need to train large numbers of police.

In April 2005, the Pentagon took over police training. At first, it dispatched 300 advisers to the provinces, a fraction of the 2,350 it now says are needed.

Some Afghan and American officials have complained that the Defense Department is trying to militarize the Afghan police and use them to fight the Taliban, a mission they say should be conducted by the Afghan Army.

Military officials say that lightly armed Afghan police officers need strengthening. Across the country, the military can drive the Taliban out of areas, but Afghan police cannot hold those gains.

The scope of the challenge that American officials face was on display during a recent military operation in Paktia Province. In a village outside the city of Gardez, Afghan police officers monitored by American police trainers searched mud-brick houses for weapons.

As they moved from compound to compound, one eager young Afghan policeman searched diligently for hidden weapons. Another was caught trying to steal a pair of binoculars by an American adviser.

“Hey,” said Maj. Craig Blando, plucking the binoculars from the young officer’s chest. “These are theirs.”

In January, General Cone ordered 800 American soldiers to shift from training the Afghan Army to training the country’s beleaguered police. Major Blando, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, leads a team of eight American police trainers based in the town of Zurmat.

As in other areas, the police were far below staffing levels, with only 24 officers patrolling an entire district, the Afghan equivalent of an American county. Plans exist to post 108 police in the district, Major Blando said.

He and other trainers said progress was possible and that Afghan recruits quickly “catch on” when closely supervised; but, they said, far more trainers are needed.

“It’s a good mission,” said Lt. Steven Amandola, a 26-year-old Army reservist and police officer in the Bronx. “But it’s going to take time.”

Evidence of high-level corruption, though, was commonplace. During a meeting between the top American and Afghan security officials in southeastern Afghanistan last month, American officials said a survey had found only 1,200 officers at work in an area where Afghan commanders claimed 3,300 officers were serving. Collecting the salaries of “ghost officers” who do not exist has been a long-running practice of senior Afghan police commanders.

General Cone said progress was being made. Long-awaited changes are already under way, including an increase in the pay of the Afghan police, the depositing of paychecks directly into officers’ bank accounts and the reduction in the size of the force’s bloated senior officer corps.

After months of wavering, Mr. Karzai named a new attorney general and allowed the removal of 11 of 14 senior police commanders that international officials said were involved in drug trafficking or corruption.

Ronald E. Neumann, the former United States ambassador to Afghanistan, said bold action, not more half-measures, was needed from both Afghan and Western officials. Decades of war and insecurity have warped the country’s culture, he said. Unsure about the future, many Afghans believe they must look out for their families first and take what they can.

“You have a corruption of the entire culture of Afghanistan by 25 years of war,” Mr. Neumann said. “It needs reform, but it has to be societal as well as juridical, and that takes time.”