The Magazine

Policing Afghanistan

Too few good men and too many bad ones make for a grueling, uphill struggle.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By ANN MARLOWE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Khost and Kandahar Provinces

Like most of the rest of Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan, Gorbuz District is a floodplain where wheat, corn, and other crops are grown by ancient methods in small plots running up to the base of 9,000-foot mountains. Stone or mudbrick-walled qalats--fortified family compounds of half an acre or an acre--dot the countryside, often built on elevated ground.

Some qalats have a de Chirico aspect, precise brown rectangles against a big, brilliant blue sky. Others cluster in villages that, like Italian hill towns, take on the appearance of a single walled compound.

Over the course of the last two years, a few jarring notes have intruded into this timeless landscape: a smoothly paved road, a huge solar-powered street light in the bazaar, a satellite dish on the district center complex. Nearly all of these are the work of the U.S. Army, which is attempting to bring Gorbuz and the rest of Khost from the Middle Ages to modernity. Until this year, Gorbuz had no schools; now its 80,000 people have 14.

The infrastructure projects are intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and motivate them to rally behind their national government. People are voting with their feet, as refugees return from Pakistan. Firm numbers are hard to come by in Afghanistan, but the best there are--those provided by U.S. forces--suggest that Gorbuz had a population of 66,000 in 2007. Now, people are starting to find conditions here better than in Pakistan's neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

But while most Afghans embrace at least the tangible benefits of modernization, the small opposition remains violent. And for the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Gorbuz and much of the rest of Khost, this apparently tranquil, age-old landscape is a minefield.

Between March 21, when the Afghan year began, and mid-November, five IEDs exploded in Gorbuz, two of them close calls for their target, the chief of police, Bismallah, whose car was destroyed in one attack. Of Khost's approximately 1,200 cops, 89 have been killed by IEDs so far this year.

Gorbuz District is authorized to pay 64 cops, and 45 were on active duty when I visited in March, but by late October only 30 were working. Captain Rick Knightly, quietly competent, leads the 27 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and U.S. Military Police who mentor the police at Gorbuz District Center. He explained, "We train them at least three times a week on the top 20 skills they have to learn and do joint operations with them."

Asked whether the training has improved the performance of his force, the police chief smiled. Bismallah, a compact, wizened man, said, "There is no improvement in my police quality, because they are quitting. If this does not change, I will be alone here with Captain Knightly."

In addition to the obvious hazards of the job, the police are paid a pittance. Their basic pay has been $100 a month, and some of Bismallah's men have quit to join the Afghan Border Police, which pays $150, or one of two privately contracted security forces manning towers on U.S. bases, the Afghan Security Guards and the Khost Protection Force. ("They're not allowed to smoke hash," one of the U.S. soldiers said by way of explaining their superior caliber. Smoking hashish and marijuana is legal in Afghanistan and tolerated in the police.)

In the Afghan Security Guards, squad leaders make $300 a month--as much as Chief Bismallah, a 26-year veteran of the police force who speaks not only his native Pashtu but also Dari and English. Security guard supervisors make $400 a month--as much as Colonel Abdul Qayoum, who commands the 1,200-man police force for all of Khost Province.

While the insurgents cannot directly engage either the American Army or the Afghan Army and increasingly keeps its distance from the police, they kill with IEDs. The police are the most vulnerable of the security forces; unlike the U.S. and Afghan armies, the police have no uparmored Humvees. They drive around in U.S.-issued Ford Ranger pickup trucks that aren't even bulletproof.

Again, the casualty numbers tell the story. As of mid-November, only 88 U.S. troops had been killed in action in all of Afghanistan this year, but 464 Afghan soldiers had been slain and a whopping 1,215 police. That last is an increase of 47 percent over the 2007 total. Add to that an estimated 2,600 police wounded or missing in action so far this year. Given a total Afghan National Police force of 77,000, that means 1 out of 20 cops was killed or wounded in 2008. By way of comparison, just 181 cops were killed in the line of duty in the United States in 2007, and our population is 10 to 12 times larger than Afghanistan's. If the United States were as dangerous for police as Afghanistan, we would have lost at least 12,000 cops this year.