Jason Motlagh / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service – 2007-08-14 22:26:11
KABULl, Afghanistan (August 14, 2007) — Ahmed Haidari has spent nearly three years inside the blast walls of the Kabul police academy, learning to become an officer along with 1,000 other trainees. But when he graduates later this month, he will assume the most dangerous job in Afghanistan.
After losing hundreds of fighters in direct confrontations with NATO forces last summer, the Taliban have increasingly turned to suicide and hit-and-run tactics that target underpaid, ill-equipped police who are dying at a record pace. According to the Interior Ministry, more than 400 police have been killed since late March.
Just last month, the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing 35 people and injuring scores more outside Kabul police headquarters. It was the second such attack in as many days, and most of the victims were trainees.
“These days, (the Taliban) are killing police, not Army soldiers so much,” said Haidari 23, as a group of trainees nodded in agreement. “We are still ready.”
In some provincial districts with more than 100,000 people, there are just 25 to 30 police stretched thin, battling insurgents and lending a hand in drug eradication, all of which makes them easy targets, Afghan officials say.
“In remote areas of the country, the only force that you can find that is active there, that is working there, is the police of Afghanistan,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary.
The upgraded Afghan National Army typically remains inside barracks until there is an attack, Bashary explained.
Analysts say the Taliban sent a two-fold message by attacking the Kabul police headquarters: no amount of international support can ensure security; and those who cooperate with the government are targets.
“Strategically, it makes sense to attack Afghan security forces where morally it gives people a complex about whether it is worth joining,” said Hekmat Karzai, head of Kabul’s Center for Conflict and Peace Studies.
Some attacks have even killed a handful of relatives of police officials, including a family of five in Ghazni province. Police often find it difficult to defend themselves when targeted for assassination. While insurgents strike with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, police are limited to used AK-47 assault rifles and other dated weaponry.
A joint report by the U.S. Defense and State departments estimated it would cost $600 million a year for years to come to bring the police force up to par, provided such funding is not siphoned off by corruption.
Even though police officers earn only $70 a month, some have not been paid in more than a year because of graft, according to the nonprofit International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. As a result, some police extort money from opium poppy farmers who have produced another record harvest this year, and destroy crops of those who don’t pay them bribes.
Last year, a U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and World Bank report accused the interior ministry – the ministry in charge of security and anti-drug campaign – of playing an increasing role in organizing protection for criminal markets.
To be sure, efforts are under way to create a more honest police force. The European Union is taking over police training duties from Germany and has sent advisers to restive provinces where they are expected to work with local governments to attract and train new men and women. The plan is to add 20,000 more police to the current level of about 62,000 officers over the next couple of years, spokesman Bashary said.
The Afghan government is also putting together a 5,000-man reserve force based in central provinces to provide “quick-response support wherever police are attacked,” he said. “They will go in and pound the enemy, and then withdraw.”
And still another program aims to hire 11,200 auxiliary officers to supplement forces in high risk security areas, notably the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand where the Taliban has its strongest presence. Some critics say the 10-day crash training course for these officers will undermine the overall strength and integrity of the national police, increasing the likelihood of graft and infiltration by insurgents. Some U.S. trainers have said that 1 in 10 new Afghan recruits have links to the Taliban.
“While it has been emphasized that the (auxiliary police) would be recruited individually, many fear the result will be the regularization of militias,” according to a report by the International Crisis Group.
Just days before his long-awaited graduation, Haidari worries more about being placed under the command of a corrupt officer than the resurgent Taliban.
“My friends who have been sent to the provinces say their officers have told them to steal from the people and take money from criminals,” he said. “I’m scared of getting a police commander who works with the Taliban.”
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