Special Operators at Work
Training the Afghan Local Police
May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By WILLY STERN
Their solution? The most effective fighting force you’ve never heard of: the Afghan Local Police. Yes, that same group that Western media and human rights agencies have weighed and found wanting. Oh yeah, there’s someone else who doesn’t like the ALP: Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar says this of the ALP, speaking in Dari, of course: “The Islamic Emirate [the insurgency’s name for Afghanistan] has made the annihilation of those social germs [the ALP] the priority of its military activities.” Explains the plainspoken Bolduc as a huge grin spreads over his gaunt face, “If our enemy says crushing the ALP is their number one priority, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign we’re doing something right.”
Bolduc and his Special Ops planners looked out over the unstable turf that’s Afghanistan and came to realize they had five massive problems to solve: (1) No Afghan ruler, ever, has been able to effectively rule the thousands of tiny and not-so-tiny villages scattered across this beautiful country. There was simply no connection between much of the country’s population and its so-called federal government. (2) The Taliban were relentless in taking advantage of this vacuum, forcing themselves into these villages and establishing bases of power. This is the same Taliban that will bury a young woman up to her head when she is merely accused of sexual misconduct, and then pelt her to a gruesome death with rocks. Make no mistake: The Taliban are cruel and awful, and widely despised. (3) The villages could best be defended by those who live there, since they would be protecting their homes and loved ones and would be the first to recognize when a troublesome outsider showed up in the village square. (4) The villages needed training, guns, and ammo to fight back. (5) Any Afghan fighting force needed to be able to stand on its own legs as coalition forces continue to pull out.
The solution Bolduc and company embraced: Village Stability Operations, or VSO, as they’re called here. These operations go hand-in-hand with the ALP. Here’s how it works: The village shura—the community elders who ran the town before the insurgents showed up—wants to get rid of the Taliban. They ask for help. If deemed to be strategically viable, the request for an Afghan Local Police unit is eventually approved by the Afghan federal governement (ministry of interior, to be exact) and by the NATO side as well. Next comes the “clearing” stage. That’s the Special Ops euphemism for a strike force going in and using all means at its disposal to kill or capture insurgents in that village. Those that aren’t whacked are detained and interrogated.
Then two things happen. The shura handpicks trustworthy men from the village to serve in their own Afghan Local Police unit. Our guys additionally vet these men—urinalysis and the whole nine yards. At the same time, a Special Operations team of 12 tough men (with a small support staff) set up shop in the village in a local compound. They eat, live, sleep, and socialize with the villagers. They drink tea. They eat goat. They make friends. They get shot at sometimes. (Often the team is joined by two American female special operators, a “cultural support team.” These are highly trained, tough women who mentor and bond with the local gals. They might help set up a rug sewing business or help deliver a baby.)
Back to the Afghan cops. Those policemen nominated by the shura go through a 21-day training program and are provided uniforms, Ford Ranger pickups, AK-47 assault rifles, and other goodies. Then U.S. Special Ops teams hump it like hell to put themselves out of a job. They train their ALP partners with the idea that within six to nine months, typically, the 12-man team can move out and the ALP can provide security on their own.
In 32 districts so much progress has been made that the special operators are just keeping an eye on their ALP colleagues from afar. Even better, 17 districts are now totally on their own. An average district will have about 300 ALP guardians. And 104 more districts have been officially approved and are awaiting an ALP force. Another sign of success comes by way of the affable brigadier general Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the courageous Afghan cop in charge of the ALP.
Gen. Ahmadzai served the proverbial three cups of tea in his modest office and explained that his biggest problem arises from the dozens of outlying districts that are lobbying him for ALP forces; with limited resources, Ahmadzai can’t come close to meeting the demand. Why is ALP so popular among Afghans? “Security by your own sons [builds] trust between you and your police,” explains Ahmadzai. “They provide security. They work in your fields. They pray in your mosque. They serve you.” What he is really saying is that the ALP is a classic—and effective—case of bottom-up security.
How does this bottom-up security work? Well, the Afghans run the ALP program. The Special Operations Command only does mentoring, a fact they remind you of about five times a day. There are 21,958 ALP guardians in uniform today. That’s enough to protect 20 percent of the population, around 5.8 million people. Plans are to grow the ALP force to 30,000 by 2015. These ALP men guard checkpoints, go on patrols, maintain a presence, and, yeah, still get attacked by the Taliban. How risky is the job? Consider that the ALP has a casualty rate of 6.2 percent, versus the Afghan National Army’s more modest 2.3 percent rate.
Afghan men of all ages and backgrounds nonetheless line up for ALP jobs, and attrition is low. To be sure, the guns and trucks are a nice incentive. So too is the $125 monthly pay, and the $65-per-month food stipend. That’s a sweet pile of change in a remote village where owning 10 goats makes a man rich. Still, the ALP is relatively cheap; it takes $6,000 a year to put an ALP cop in the field; it costs six times that to field an Afghan National Policeman. Okay, enough stats.
There are other positive signs. RAND Corp., the nonprofit that does much defense-related work, has been studying the ALP for some time. How effective is the ALP? Rand associate economist Daniel Egel, a specialist in program effectiveness in conflict-prone countries, explains: “Overall, we’ve seen consistent, modest, but statistically significant improvements in terms of the security environment, governance, and economic activity.” The RAND data show that “kinetic activity”—that’s Army-speak for the good guys and the bad guys trying to kill each other with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, snipers, you name it—generally declines within 12 months after the Special Ops teams show up in a village.
Bolduc leans heavily on RAND analysts. They sit outside his office and have been known to offer less-than-rosy assessments. Bolduc is like David Petraeus that way—bringing in smart outsiders for a fresh look at what he’s doing right, and wrong. Outside agencies have taken note. USAID now partners with ALP. The do-gooders at the International Committee of the Red Cross now provide training to the ALP in the basics of human rights law and first aid. But Robin Waudo, Kabul-based spokesperson for the ever-neutral Red Cross, said these programs “cannot be seen as a vote of confidence or endorsement by the ICRC but a necessary part of our work to protect the victims of the conflict.”
Of course there are problems. Virtually all ALP cops are illiterate. They enter the fray in nasty Taliban strongholds with only three weeks’ training. A 30-year-old Afghan male has spent his entire life in a war zone—surrounded by ruthless cycles of death and violence; he’ll never become Sheriff Andy Griffith of Mayberry. They make bad mistakes. I heard one senior ALP commander tell Bolduc proudly that his guys had “beaten the crap” out of a suspicious fellow who was writing down license plate numbers. Bolduc quickly reminded his counter-part, “You can’t go around beating the crap out of people.” The mentoring continues.
When ALP guardians step over the line, the case is supposed to be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. Last November, four unbalanced ALP cops from Kunduz Province were convicted of raping an 18-year-old Afghan woman; they were sentenced to 16-year prison terms. There have been many other documented cases of abuse by ALP guardians, cases that the New York Times and other media harp on. The Los Angeles Times further reports that the ALP has “a shady reputation” and “has been implicated in human rights abuses and criminal activity.”
Nobody at NSOCC-A headquarters will speak ill of the media. But I can. Why do the Western media fixate on the ALP’s shortcomings? Could our left-leaning scribes be just a tad obsessed with taking potshots at the U.S. Special Forces community and their Afghan partners?
Major General Thomas and Brigadier General Bolduc are well aware of the challenges, past, present, and future. The ALP’s gains are fragile. The Taliban are in Afghanistan for the long haul. The NATO military footprint in Afghanistan post-2014 is a question mark. Bolduc says the ALP is funded for years to come, but who really knows? With President Hamid Karzai, the NATO special operators are faced with the curse of the unreliable ally. Recall that the mercurial Karzai in February unceremoniously chucked all U.S. Special Forces out of the strategically key district of Nerkh, in Wardak Province. This is significant militarily since Wardak is the gateway to the capital; Wardak is often called here the “soft underbelly of Kabul.”
Why would Karzai boot out his allies and protectors? Is he already hedging his bets—i.e., cozying up to the Taliban a bit—as he looks towards the April 2014 Afghan elections? General Ahmadzai, the brutally honest top ALP commander, told me that Karzai “gets his information from lots of sources, and is about 80 percent committed to the ALP.” In the years ahead, might the ALP revert to unregulated militias, answerable to local, if brutal, warlords? Yes, real risks remain.
Still, given all the challenges, what the Special Forces have accomplished with the Afghan Local Police is awfully impressive: not perfect but pretty damn good.
Willy Stern has written for The Weekly Standard from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Mali, and other places.