The Magazine

Cop Out

Why Afghanistan has no police.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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Worse yet, the infrastructure that does exist for police assistance consists of more bureaucracy than capa city. Because America doesn't have a national police force of its own from which to draw for deployments abroad, Washington has come to depend on contractors like DynCorp, which in turn hire retired state and local cops and dispatch them to post-conflict zones.

In Afghanistan, police reform fell to the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL)--despite the fact that the bureau's core mission is counter-narcotics, and that it had almost no personnel for the job of building foreign police forces.

INL's plan amounted to little more than sending Afghan police, as quickly as possible, through a handful of regional training centers run by DynCorp. Although this approach allowed Washington to congratulate itself for having "reformed" a large number of ANP in short order, it scarcely affected their behavior or capabilities at the operational level, where it actually mattered.

"The police would get trained, but then they would go back into the system with nothing to support them, and they'd tend to fall back into their old bad habits," recalls one Afghan policy insider--a process another official compares to making batch after batch of ice cubes, only to keep dumping them into a vat of boiling water.

The shortcomings of INL's plan were especially glaring to U.S. soldiers dispersed throughout the country, who had to live day to day with a weak, corrupt ANP. Early last year, when I visited a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ghazni, its commander confessed he was spending half of his time on the police, even though he had no mandate to do so. The local ANP were simply too corrupt and inept to safely ignore, he explained, and no one else was volunteering to fix them.

A similar sense of frustration gnawed at the U.S. military leadership in Kabul, who contrasted the lackluster performance of the ANP with that of the increasingly capable Afghan army. The latter, they noted, was being overseen by a large, U.S.-led office of military cooperation, along with hundreds of American soldiers embedded inside the force. These tactical trainers represented an especially important innovation: Living alongside Afghan troops and accompanying them on operations, they provided constant reinforcement and mentoring, as well as serving as liaisons with coalition forces and a check against abuses.

Given the success of this model, the military began arguing in mid-2004 for a new approach to the Afghan police, one that would allow the U.S. military to oversee their training, as it does that of Afghan soldiers. Not only would this allow the Pentagon's vast resources to be funneled toward supporting the ANP, providing the personnel that the State Department lacked, it would also facilitate an integrated civil-military strategy for Afghan istan's security forces.

Although the proposal won approval from Zalmay Khalilzad, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghan istan, it was seen at the State Department as nothing less than a military coup, sparking massive resistance. The stage was thus set for what one U.S. official would describe as "the most frustrating, bureaucratic, counterproductive interagency battle I've ever known."

The argument, which persists to this day, boils down to a nasty collision of ideologies and institutional cultures. INL, in brief, insists that police assistance must remain civilian-led and that the Pentagon's involvement threatens to "militarize" the program; rather than building an Afghan police force focused on rule of law and human rights, it warns, the U.S. military will turn Afghan cops into auxiliaries for counterinsurgency. As one Foggy Bottom employee griped to me last summer, "The Defense Department fundamentally doesn't understand rule of law."

The military--along with much of the Afghan national security leadership--responds by pointing out that, like it or not, Afghanistan is a country at war. In the south and the east, in particular, Taliban and other insurgents have been murdering police as representatives of the national government. Regardless of whether officials in Kabul or Washington wish to think of the ANP as combatants, the enemy is treating them as such.

Publicly, both sides claim that they have now reached an amicable compromise: a composite training command, responsible for both the army and police, run by a two-star U.S. general but with an INL representative who retains oversight of the ANP.