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Fix the Police

One of the most urgent tasks confronting Gen. David Petraeus is also one of the least glamorous: reforming Afghanistan's corrupt and ineffective police.

It doesn’t grab headlines the way a public spat between a commanding general and the White House, or reports that contractors are paying off Taliban insurgents, can.

But the unglamorous business of reforming Afghanistan’s police may be among the most important challenges for the U.S. mission right now. There are, of course, other urgent tasks that will confront Gen. David Petraeus when he takes charge in Kabul. Foreign forces must push back the insurgency to buy time. The Afghan Army must grow in size and proficiency, and the Afghan government must improve. But it is the police who must secure the population. Without effective police, the U.S. Marines in Marjah will continue to be stuck in a small area, unable to deploy elsewhere in force without risking the security they have fought for. New plans for securing Kandahar likewise must include effective contributions from Afghan police. Unfortunately, the police are the weakest link in the security forces.

The U.S. approach to the Afghan police has been fraught with problems. Following years of drift  in which the effort was left to others, serious police funding began only in 2007, after Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, then the top U.S. commander in Kabul, and I recommended a substantial increase. At the time, as U.S ambassador to Afghanistan, I warned in telegrams and in conversations with senior officials — including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and President George W. Bush himself — that the additional money would be wasted without sufficient trainers. But my concerns went unanswered. The State Department fought with the military over whether the force was being too militarized for proper policing. The reality was that it remained ineffective in either realm.

On my recent visit to Afghanistan, I saw decisions moving in the right direction, but with critical dangers ahead. The United States and its Afghan partner are focused on first building a paramilitary force because, as then Interior Minister Hanif Atmar told me, Afghans and internationals alike view securing Afghan civilians as an urgent priority. That requires advisors with military skills, such as patrolling, defense against ambushes and roadside bombs, and so on. Yet a paramilitary emphasis should not exclude policing skills, such as criminal investigation, forensic science, and protecting evidence, that are critical to the longer-term formation of a functioning justice system.

That means that civilian mentors and trainers, not just military advisors, are needed. There are real differences between how military and police organizations build ties with the communities they secure. Senior police officers need to lean policing skills. The NATO training command in Kabul, a joint U.S. and NATO operation, knows this and wants more civilians as well as military trainers. But neither the right balance nor the numbers of military and civilian advisors are present. Police trainers of all kinds are at only 59 percent of required numbers. Despite impressive work by Canadian and Italian gendarmerie trainers, the NATO effort is not meeting its goals. The United States must not repeat the mistake of past years by leaving a critical hole while waiting for others.

Yet U.S. civilian trainers who are willing to do more and have suffered losses along with their military colleagues are hobbled by State Department rules that prevent them from deploying to many areas or force them to wait weeks for a U.S. military base to be certified as meeting unrealistic security standards. Far too many decisions need to go back to Washington contract managers in State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL). In 2006, I recommended bringing contract management forward to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. INL made minor changes, but retained control, and the problem persisted. The State Department’s determination to manage the training programs from Washington has badly hampered the ability of civilian contractors to respond to military requests for help, even though the contractors are willing to move.

Recent policy decisions might improve the situation, but too much contract management remains centered on lawyerly fiddling over liability issues that are inappropriate for a war, such as peacetime standards for firing ranges to avoid accidents. Mentors have been blamed for not having skills for which they were never recruited. New, more accurate job descriptions could improve the situation. But the work needs to move far faster than it has to date.

There is progress. Afghans are organizing their own police training teams with U.S. help. The Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) shows promise. Unlike the regular police that are local forces often under the control of local power brokers, the ANCOP members are recruited nationally. This avoids the corruption of local forces. ANCOP members also receive more extended training. ANCOP has performed well, but the danger remains that the force might be used up by extended deployments; current attrition rates are well above 50 percent. Despite political pressure to show progress, Petraeus must be careful not to grind up Afghanistan’s best police force or lower the quality while raising its numbers.

We need greater realism. At best, the United States and its allies are building a better paramilitary force — not a justice system. If the West does not lose the war, the police could grow, over time, to do real policing. It’s time to start planning now for a phased shift to real policing.

It’s also important to move faster to field the right trainers, manage them from the field, and repair seven years of poor Washington policy and inadequate resources. Expectations need to be realistic; nobody should exaggerate what can be done or how fast police growth targets can be reached. If not, the coalition will either overuse and break the force, as I watched U.S. forces do in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, or dismiss real progress as failure because it does not meet unrealistic calls for speed. We have wasted too much time. General Petraeus needs every possible tool and flexible support to succeed.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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