The Magazine

Cop Out

Why Afghanistan has no police.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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WHEN RIOTING suddenly broke out in Kabul in May, sparked by a fatal traffic accident involving the U.S. military, most in the city were taken by surprise. Less shocking, alas, was the response of the Afghan National Police, or ANP, to the unrest. Rather than dispersing the mobs and restoring order, Kabul's cops were reported fleeing their posts and, in some cases, joining the looters. "The reaction of our police was really shameful," acknowledged Jawed Ludin, chief of staff to President Hamid Karzai.

Unfortunately, the sorry performance of the ANP was not an isolated event, but a reflection of a much bigger problem. Nearly five years since the ouster of the Taliban and more than three since the fall of Saddam, the Bush administration has repeatedly stumbled in its efforts to create effective foreign police forces. In marked contrast to the army-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have begun to yield encouraging results, the indigenous police in both countries appear stuck in a transition to nowhere, slaughtered by insurgents and infiltrated by militias and warlords.

Admittedly, there are good reasons why police are harder to recruit and train than an army. Militaries are structured hierarchically and tend to operate in large formations, allowing their development to be managed top-down rather than bottom-up, and with less manpower. Even more important, an army by its very nature operates at a distance from society, and can consequently be better insulated from its problems--whether ethnic rivalries, patronage networks, or corruption. Police are harder to wall off from these forces, operating as they do in close proximity to the population.

But that is also why police are so important--especially in counterinsurgency, where the need to gather intelligence and win public trust demands a security force that can stay close to the people. Indeed, as a superb U.S. War College study by James Corum recently argued, "in counterinsurgency, organizing and training the indigenous police often attains a higher priority than training the indigenous army."

Police are likewise crucial for democracy. Far more than soldiers or parliamentarians, they are the representatives of state power with whom ordinary citizens have regular contact. Rule of law, civil liberties, human rights--all presuppose the existence of a certain kind of police.

Why, then, has police assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan gone so poorly? As always when bureaucracies fail, there's an enormous temptation to blame insufficient resources and inadequate planning. And certainly, given the Bush administration's often lackadaisical attitude toward postwar reconstruction, less deserving scapegoats can be found. Yet a closer look at efforts in Afghanistan reveals another, more troubling dynamic at play--one that suggests that, absent sweeping reforms, police-building will continue to be a weak spot in the global war on terror long after George Bush leaves the White House.

The story of the Afghan National Police begins in late 2001, when Hamid Karzai's interim administration came into existence, inheriting tens of thousands of poorly trained, poorly disciplined, and poorly equipped constabularies. Although in theory answerable to the interior ministry in Kabul, these forces were "national" in name only, a balkanized rabble whose loyalties tended toward local powerbrokers.

Faced with this mess, the Bush administration first tried to hand it off to someone else. In early 2002, responsibility for the ANP was given to Germany, under a plan for Afghan reconstruction in which different countries took charge of different problems. It was thought that assigning ownership of a particular issue to a particular government would bolster accountability for solving it. In practice, however, this stab at hardheaded multilateralism proved a disappointment, as nations interpreted their mandates in wildly divergent ways.

While the United States, responsible for the Afghan National Army, understood its task to mean building the new military, the Germans insisted they were only coordinating police reform. As a result, although Berlin set up a police academy in Kabul, it made no systematic effort to develop the professionalized, countrywide force so desperately needed--a gap the Afghans soon turned to Washington to fill.

But building foreign police, it turns out, is something that the American government is expressly designed not to be able to do--the legacy of a 1974 congressional ban that abolished USAID's Office of Public Safety, previously charged with these missions. Although exceptions to the act have since crept onto the statute books, their cumulative effect has been to make police assistance into a second-tier, ad hoc responsibility of several different agencies and actors scattered throughout the executive branch.