Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan
1. Policing “Afghanistan’s Mississippi”
Urbal, the former police chief of Shamalzai District, Zabul, beckoned the American paratroopers into his room at Zabul’s provincial police headquarters. The short, scruffy Jalalabad native had been removed from his position by Zabul’s governor recently, much to the chagrin of his American mentors. Captain Mike Tumlin, 31, wanted to check on the progress of Urbal’s tangled case.
Tumlin, of A battery, 2nd battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery, was officially the “partner” to Zabul’s police chief, and the commander of four platoons of paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne who train the Afghan National Police in various locations in Zabul. The red-headed captain – whom I knew from two prior embeds with the 82nd Airborne – was unofficially enacting governance in this arid, impoverished south-central province with 250,000 to 356,000 mainly illiterate inhabitants. The subsistence farmers and merchants and itinerant farm workers of Zabul--bigger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey--are spread out over 1,517 villages, and even the largest town, Shajoy, has under 40,000 citizens.
In February, Urbal had been brought in to Shamalzai, together with 41 Afghan National Police (ANP), to replace a corrupt, ragtag militia that had been terrorizing the locals. But Mohammed Wazir, a district governor who stood out for malfeasance even by the dismal local standards, had won a turf battle with Urbal, and now the police officer was in limbo.
Reality in Afghanistan is never quite what it seems: We were greeted by a strong whiff of hashish fumes in Urbal’s room (he said a friend had been smoking there). Nationwide, according to the Pentagon, 13.7 percent of the ANP test positive for drug use. An hour before, Zabul’s deputy police chief Jalani Khan, a 30-year veteran of the force, had also told us that Urbal borrowed or extorted about $4,000 from a local bazaar merchant. In a typical Afghan coincidence, the merchant turned up just as Urbal finished recounting his story and embraced him like a long-lost friend. Apparently he was happy that he would soon get the money back.
Tumlin smiled wryly; his deadpan sense of humor and preternatural patience help in Zabul. A 2001 West Point grad and Army Ranger, he watches himself for signs of “Stockholm Syndrome,” admitting that he probably over-estimated Zabul’s former police chief, Colonel Sarjang, who was abruptly removed for corruption in March of this year.
As if ordinary corruption weren’t enough, the drug trade permeates life and governance here. Zabul isn’t a major opium-growing province--it’s too high up, averaging between 5,000 and 7,000 feet--but it is a major transshipment route. In just one ten-day period in January, Zabul police seized over a thousand pounds of heroin from vehicles traveling on Highway One. In the roadless mountains on the Pakistan border, smaller shipments are thought to get through regularly.
Walking through the bazaar in the capital of Qalat (population 20,000) with officers attached to the Provincial Reconstruction Team, I stopped at a grungy barber shop, a surprisingly attractive café, and a motorcycle repair shop to do an informal survey of the local economy. The first two shops were only two months old, but all three merchants said business was slow because many Zabulis were in neighboring Helmand province, working as day laborers on the poppy harvest.
Sarjang’s replacement as Zabul police chief, Colonel Asadullah Sherzad, arrived on April 1 from his previous job as chief of police for Helmand province—where he was booted out by the British for massive corruption and involvement in the opium trade. He is said to be a henchman of Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of President Hamid Harzai and the Mafia boss of Kandahar.
The fleshy, pompous Sherzad left Zabul on April 22 as abruptly as he had arrived. (He’s said to be running for parliament from his native Farah province in the September 18 elections.) In his brief stint, Sherzad allied himself with Mohammed Wazir, the corrupt district governor. Zabul Governor Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, himself fighting an indictment for corruption, promised Tumlin’s boss, LTC David Oclander, that Wazir was through at an April meeting I attended, but President Karzai had since issued an order to reinstate him as a district governor elsewhere in Zabul. This is what Captain Tumlin is up against in his effort to help Urbal.
Governance isn’t the only obstacle in the struggle to improve the Afghan National Police, or ANP, so that American forces can leave Afghanistan. The ANP are nearly at their planned October 31 strength of 109,000—they are due to increase to a final tally of 134,000 by October 31, 2011—but only because massive recruitment efforts are stanching a tide of departures.
Last December, General Stanley McChrystal raised police pay to parity with Afghan National Army levels. This immediately and dramatically increased enlistment. Unfortunately, although the new base pay—which begins at 12,000 afghanis or $250 a month—is enough to get men to become cops, it’s not enough to get them to stay.
“Every month, 100 men are coming and 100 men are going,” the Zabul provincial police recruitment chief told me by way of explaining why he couldn’t show me paper records on an annual basis. The officers and NCOs have about a 30 percent annual attrition rate. In Zabul, the average enlisted recruit works only long enough to pick up his first paycheck, after two months, and then “uses the $500 to go to get a good job in Iran.”
This gets at another problem: Most of the Zabul cops are northern Afghans who speak Dari, very close to Iranian Persian. But many of them--almost certainly a majority--don’t speak the Pashtu that almost all Zabulis speak. The reason is that in conservative Pashtun provinces like Zabul, joining the police or the army puts a cop or soldier on the side of a national government that enjoys little support here, making his family fair game for insurgent attacks.
Admittedly, Zabul is an extreme case. But it is the extreme cases that have to improve if Afghanistan is to cohere on its own. Historically, Zabul has had little governance, and its predominantly Ghilzai Pashtun tribesmen are traditional rivals of the Durranis who hold power in Kandahar and Kabul. (President Karzai is a Durrani).
As LTC Oclander says, “The Afghan government has not placed much emphasis here--it’s the Mississippi of Afghanistan. The province isn’t crucial to us, but it’s crucial to the Taliban.”
Oclander, the commander of Task Force Fury of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, commands five companies that “partner” with Afghan police and army units. His paratroopers redeployed to Kandahar shortly after I left the province in late April, so a new team of “partners” from Task Force Fury will move into the almost-finished $16 million American-financed Provincial Police Headquarters in downtown Qalat. Tumlin hopes that when the new team of paratroopers is around the ANP 24-7, they’ll be able to enforce higher standards. Hash smoking, for instance, will have to go.
The new police headquarters facility in Qalat is luxurious by Afghan standards, with sinks, showers, and a huge, white-tiled kitchen with marble countertops.
The thickwalled construction is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Cynics wonder how it will look when Americans are no longer around to maintain it.
Bleak as the prospects for Zabul’s ANP sometimes seem, the U.S. and the Afghan Ministry of the Interior have made some progress in the last year. When I visited the ANP in more-developed Khost and Kandahar in 2009, pay and supplies were still a nightmare. Scantily equipped cops complained about not having been paid in months. The vast majority of Zabul’s cops are being paid. Every ANP soldier I asked said he had the right numbers of uniforms, boots, and so on. This is a minor triumph in an almost completely disorganized country.
Body armor is another matter; while all ANP who complete training are supposed to be issued body armor with Kevlar plates, only about a third of those in Zabul seem to have it. (Americans will tell you that a still smaller number actually wear it, except when they are anticipating imminent combat.)
There’s also a problem with weapons--possible oversupply. There are dark rumors of guns disappearing into the hands of the enemy from the Qalat Provincial HQ. Ammo, on the other hand, is scarce. Most ANP here only have one to four magazines at any time, or 30-120 bullets. With the Afghan style of firing their AK-47s in rapid bursts, that’s only seconds of ammo. I’ve heard anecdotes here and elsewhere of national police and border police who were killed by insurgents because they ran out of ammo.
Oclander’s paratroopers in Zabul are seeing some progress in their effort to increase the operational tempo in both police and army. The Afghan units are now conducting at least twice as many patrols as they did before Task Force Fury arrived in August 2009. Captain Steven Davis, a 2006 West Point grad who’s the Fire Support Officer and Effects Coordinator for Oclander’s battalion, explained, “It used be that it required an order from the highest level of their command to get them to go out on a patrol. Now, coordination can be made at platoon level to conduct immediate operations.”
2. A costly failure: pressing the reset button on the ANP
The bad news nationally is that the Afghan police won’t be anywhere near ready to stand alone by July 2011 when we are supposed to begin drawing down our forces. An April Pentagon report is candid about the situation.
Only one of Afghanistan’s more than 360 districts has ANP deemed completely capable of independent operation, with another 14 districts rated at CM1, (Capability Milestone 1), which means a mark of 85 percent. Meanwhile 64 districts were rated CM2 (70-84 percent), and 100 a dismal CM3 (51-69 percent). The number of ANP districts at CM1 was no higher than it was in May 2009.
Earlier this summer, the Financial Times reported that a forthcoming study from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction suggests that the whole “capability milestone” rating system itself is badly flawed, measuring equipment and procedures more than combat skills.
When American commanders took over the training of the Afghan National Police in 2006 from the Europeans, they placed their hopes on something termed the Focused District Development (FDD) system. The Europeans hadn’t accomplished much. The American plan was to recruit locally—which has its pluses and minuses—train regionally, and deploy locally.
Under FDD, cops from Afghanistan’s more dangerous or strategic districts were sent en masse to an eight-week residential program for intensive training, including two hours daily of literacy instruction. (Only about 30 percent of the police are deemed literate, i.e. reading at third grade level. )While they were training, an elite national group called the ANCOP, or Afghan National Civil Order Police, were brought into the district they vacated to take over policing.
The FDD system, which had trained 34,247 cops by August 2009, has been a failure by any reasonable standards, with only one district of the 73 who had been through the program by last fall functioning without any foreign help. Seventeen of those 73 districts have since relapsed to lower quality ratings than when they entered. And attrition in dangerous southern and eastern provinces is so high—ranging upwards of 50 percent—that some districts’ cops have had to be sent through the FDD training a second time.
The pay raises haven’t been sufficient to prevent attrition, though the national figures are not as extreme as Zabul’s. According to the crackerjack team of Operations Research analysts in Kabul, headed by Colonel Pam Hoyt, in the twelve months ended this March, an average of 17.4 percent of the ANP left every month. Nationally, 16,069 ANP left the force between April 2009 and March 2010.
The Pentagon’s April report faced the problem head-on: FDD has improved the quality of ANP in many districts, but many districts have only had minimal success after completing the FDD training program due to the lack of reform in other areas such as governance and rule of law--the same problem Oclander’s paratroopers struggled with in Zabul. Without these other institutions in place, police training efforts will only be minimally effective.
Under new plans for ANP recruitment and training described to me in April by Canadian Major General Michael Ward, the system will shift to recruiting, vetting, and formal initial training in a training center followed by assignment to a police district after graduation. FDD is being scaled back and will be replaced by in-district development program called Directed District Development.
One innovation: mobile four-person Afghan training teams will circulate around the country’s 80 most dangerous districts. One of the four will be a civilian literacy teacher. The plan, according to the Pentagon report, is for the first 60 teams to be operational by October, with 100 by April 2011. The first class of trainers began preparing this March.
The system of assignments will be rationalized. As the April Pentagon report laments:
High levels of corruption persist in the ANP and reports of promotions being sold are common. . . . [At] the Afghan National Police Academy . . . only two percent of the last graduating class deployed to the south while 74 percent remained in Kabul.
In response to their dismal record with the ANP, NTMA—the NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan—is moving away from the effort to stand up the ANP and focusing more on the elite Afghan National Civil Order Police. The four brigades of ANCOP are all officers or NCOs and are 100 percent literate.
This pressing of the “reset” button is ominous, as is the quiet replacement of the FDD program. One problem with switching emphasis to the ANCOP is that they had an 82 percent attrition rate from April 2009 to February 2010, according to Colonel Hoyt. In the twelve months ending March 21, 2010 (the Afghan fiscal year), 2,569 ANCOP left the ranks. The goal is to have 11,000 ANCOP by March 2011, as opposed to under 4,000 now.
LTC Harvey Denison, the ORSA, the military term for an operations research specialist, in charge of ANCOP analysis, explained in a May 20 email, “The NCO attrition needs to get to 30 percent or less by October 2011 to enable completing growth and sustain the force.”
It’s possible--though not likely--that this goal will be met: In February and March 2010, attrition for the ANCOPs fell to under 50 percent. Given that the pay raise for national police only took effect in early 2010, it’s reasonable to think that the attrition rate will improve in the remainder of this year. And unlike the ANP, the ANCOP have no ethnic balance requirements, and there are plenty of non-Pashtuns who want to serve. In the class that finished Basic Warrior Training in Mazar earlier this summer, 59.4 percent were Tajik and just 17.1 percent Pashtun, with 13.1 percent Uzbeks and 7 percent Hazaras.
General Ward says a new system is in place to strike at what the U.S. Army believes to be the root of the ANCOP attrition problem—back-to-back deployments far from home in dangerous provinces. In the future, ANCOP units will train close to home for six weeks, deploy for twelve, and then return for rest and training.
The problem with these plans is that much of the attrition occurs once recruits learn where they are going. French LTC Antoine de Boisanger, who runs the ANCOP Training Center in Mazar, explained that about 10 percent quit after the first week of training with little attrition during the rest of the training. The departures occur when men find out that they are being sent to fight in Helmand or Kandahar. Many young men figure that it’s worth the gamble to go through the seven weeks of basic training (which is paid). After all, a fourth or so of ANCOP will deploy to safe northern, western and central provinces.
When I met a gung-ho group of young, northern, Dari-speaking ANCOP trainees at the Mazar-i-Sharif training center in April, they insisted that they wanted to fight in Helmand. Statistics suggest many won’t stay there long, but this group looked like the best case for sticking with the program: Of the 14 men who gathered to talk with me, only four were married. A couple had relatives in the ANCOP or other security forces; one man I interviewed was a university graduate whose father, uncle and older brother were all in the ANCOP.
The April Pentagon report also notes that only 10 of 20 ANCOP battalions stand at Capability Milestone 1 now. While NATO commanders argue that this is because of constant deployments, the record suggests taking optimistic predictions for the ANCOP with a grain of salt.
One group that has been overlooked is the Afghan Border Police or ABP. Given the amount of infiltration from Pakistan, border security should be paramount. Almost no successful counterinsurgency has been fought without emphasizing border control; the French built a wall between Algeria and Tunisia, and the Israelis have one too. Afghanistan of course has no wall; it does not even have many border control posts with Pakistan. The ABP are instead the least well-trained branch of the police (only 5,480 had been trained as of the Pentagon’s April report) and they are stretched thin. Nationally, just 16,104 ABP are on the books, while Afghanistan has 3436 miles of border of which 1610 are with Pakistan. In Zabul, the ABP are so far off the grid that their U.S. mentors have rarely visited them.
3.Can we ever leave?
What most Americans want to know about Afghanistan is, When can our troops leave? And the answer is, not terribly soon. Across the board, Americans who work daily with the Afghan National Army say three to four years would be a realistic time frame for them to operate independently—and the few that would hazard a guess about the police just say, “longer.”
Ominously, the ANA isn’t improving much faster than the police. Between May 2009 and March 2010, the number of ANA units at the highest level, CM1, had remained unchanged at 22. The number at CM2 had increased from 14 to 35. And the number at CM3 went from 14 to 28. The remaining 20 units were at CM4 (under 50 percent capability). So despite billions of U.S. funds, the number of ANA units deemed at “full operational capability” did not increase over a period of ten months.
The amount we are spending on the combined Afghan National Security Forces, army and police, is staggering--and rising. In the 2010 fiscal year, Congress appropriated $6.6 billion for the Afghan Security Forces Fund, a trust that also receives contributions from other nations. And this February, the DOD requested an additional $2.6 billion for the 2010 fiscal year and $11.6 billion for the 2011 fiscal year.
To provide a context, Israel’s 2008 defense budget was $13.3 billion; Israel and Egypt both receive about $3 billion a year in U.S. aid. Another way to look at it: For $11.6 billion, we could hire 116,000 men at $100,000 each, a number that would surely attract some well trained American soldiers.
Obama’s summer 2011 deadline should not become an excuse for leaving an inadequate Afghan force that may melt away without constant American presence. But our failure to improve the quality of Afghanistan’s uniformed forces significantly in four years doesn’t encourage optimism about an end date for our involvement. And as the situation in Zabul suggests, the good work of our military can be undone by Afghan malfeasance.
As one of the NCOs in Task Force Fury put it, “What’s in the field is fake Taliban. The real Taliban is in Kabul milking us for everything we’ve got.”
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs. In April, she completed her sixth embed with American troops in Afghanistan and her fourteenth trip there.