The Magazine

Cop Out

Why Afghanistan has no police.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By VANCE SERCHUK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The reality on the ground is far darker, however: a shotgun wedding between the military and INL, characterized by pervasive distrust and recrimination at the staff level, and recurring skirmishes over issues like which contractors to hire, what tactics the Afghan police can be taught, and whether key individuals should work out of the U.S. embassy or the military compound. "INL is constantly trying to split stupid hairs," complains one officer. "Teaching the police how to react to an ambush: Is that offensive or defensive? They say it's offensive and shouldn't be taught."

Unsurprisingly, the biggest losers in this unhappy marriage are the Afghan police. Although some reforms have lurched forward over the past two years, such as a series of personnel changes in the ANP's upper ranks, the most important question--how to get large numbers of U.S. personnel embedded with police at the operational level--remains unanswered. In part, that's because INL has held the line against using soldiers to train police. It's also because any effort dominated by interagency sturm und drang is likely to remain more focused in Kabul and Washington than in the field.

Whatever the excuse, the result is that the Afghan police--despite fighting bravely in numerous engagements--all too often have found themselves isolated, outmanned, and outgunned against a revived insurgency. The failure of the international community to deliver effective police also prompted President Karzai to suggest the formal creation of village militias--a controversial proposal that speaks volumes about the disillusionment and disappointment of our Afghan allies, whose public credibility is being chipped away by their inability to secure their country.

The problem here isn't that the American officials involved are ill-intentioned or egomaniacal. On the contrary, one of the most striking things about the civil-military tension over the ANP is its persistence despite successive staff turnover.

Rather, the difficulty lies in the fundamental misalignment of capa city and responsibility for police assistance inside the U.S. government, and the extent to which the institutions of American foreign policy simply aren't organized for this purpose. Instead of confronting the need for painful bureaucratic reforms in Washington, however, U.S. officials have shifted the burden almost entirely to Kabul: Over there--and only there--are people expected to disregard their institutional identities, disentangle their respective mandates, and then jerry-rig some sort of mechanism to accomplish the mission. It's a rare constellation of personalities who can make this work; most of the time, it's a recipe for gridlock.

This arrangement still might make sense if we were convinced police assistance in Afghanistan were an anomaly, a onetime requirement that won't recur. But that's hard to swallow, given the string of interventions over the past decade--Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor, Bosnia, Haiti--all of which have required some sort of ambitious police-building. And given the nature of the war on terror, especially as the Bush administration has defined it, with a dual emphasis on security and liberty, there's every reason to believe foreign assistance to indigenous police is going to become more, not less, important in the years ahead.

On the positive side, the Bush administration is spending more money to help the Afghan police than ever before, but new squad cars and refurbished police stations aren't going to fix the institutional disconnect in Washington or Kabul.

Here, then, is the paradox: Police assistance will continue to be a critical American mission for the foreseeable future, while the U.S. government will continue to be organized in such a way as to be bad at it.
Perhaps those Afghans have good reason to riot.

Vance Serckuk is a research fellow at AEI.