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AFGHAN POLICE: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Six billion dollars later, the Afghan National Police can’t begin to do their jobs right never mind relieve American forces.

By T. Christian Miller, Mark Hosenball, and Ron Moreau

Mohammad Moqim watches in despair as his men struggle with their AK-47 automatic rifles, doing their best to hit man-size targets 50 meters away. A few of the police trainees lying prone in the mud are decent shots, but the rest shoot clumsily, and fumble as they try to reload their weapons. The Afghan National Police (ANP) captain sighs as he dismisses one group of trainees and orders 25 more to take their places on the firing line. “We are still at zero,” says Captain Moqim, 35, an eight-year veteran of the force. “They don’t listen, are undisciplined, and will never be real policemen.”

Poor marksmanship is the least of it. Worse, crooked Afghan cops supply much of the ammunition used by the Taliban, according to Saleh Mohammed, an insurgent commander in Helmand province. The bullets and rocket-propelled grenades sold by the cops are cheaper and of better quality than the ammo at local markets, he says. It’s easy for local cops to concoct credible excuses for using so much ammunition, especially because their supervisors try to avoid areas where the Taliban are active. Mohammed says local police sometimes even stage fake firefights so that if higher-ups question their outsize orders for ammo, villagers will say they’ve heard fighting.

America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits—but the program has been a disaster. More than $322 million worth of invoices for police training were approved even though the funds were poorly accounted for, according to a government audit, and fewer than 12 percent of the country’s police units are capable of operating on their own. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s top representative in the region, has publicly called the Afghan police “an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption.” During the Obama administration’s review of Afghanistan policy last year, “this issue received more attention than any other except for the question of U.S. troop levels,” Holbrooke later told NEWSWEEK. “We drilled down deep into this.”

The worst of it is that the police are central to Washington’s plans for getting out of Afghanistan. The U.S.-backed government in Kabul will never have popular support if it can’t keep people safe in their own homes and streets. Yet in a United Nations poll last fall, more than half the Afghan respondents said the police are corrupt. Police commanders have been implicated in drug trafficking, and when U.S. Marines moved into the town of Aynak last summer, villagers accused the local police force of extortion, assault, and rape.

The public’s distrust of the cops is palpable in the former insurgent stronghold of Marja. Village elders welcomed the U.S. Marines who recently drove out the Taliban, but told the Americans flatly they don’t want the ANP to return. “The people of Marja will tell you that one of their greatest fears was the police coming back,” says Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who took over in November as chief of the U.S. program to expand and improve Afghanistan’s security forces. “You constantly hear these stories about who was worse: the Afghan police that were there or the Taliban.” The success of America’s counterinsurgency strategy depends on the cops, who have greater contact with local communities than the Army does. “This is not about seizing land or holding terrain; it’s about the people,” says Caldwell. “You have to have a police force that the people accept, believe in, and trust.”

More than a year after Barack Obama took office, the president is still discovering how bad things are. At a March 12 briefing on Afghanistan with his senior advisers, he asked whether the police will be ready when America’s scheduled drawdown begins in July 2011, according to a senior official who was in the room. “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” replied Caldwell, taking part in the meeting via video link from Afghanistan. “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform.” The president looked stunned. “Eight years,” he said. “And we didn’t train police? It’s mind-boggling.” The room was silent.

Efforts to build a post-Taliban police force have been plagued from the start by unrealistic goals, poor oversight, and slapdash hiring. Patrolmen were recruited locally, issued weapons, and placed on the beat with little or no formal training. Most of their techniques have been picked up on the job—including plenty of ugly habits. Even now, Caldwell says, barely a quarter of the 98,000-member force has received any formal instruction. The people who oversaw much of the training that did take place were contractors—many of them former American cops or sheriffs. They themselves had little proper direction, and the government officials overseeing their activities did not bother to examine most expenses under $3,000, leaving room for abuse. Amazingly, no single agency or individual ever had control of the training program for long, so lines of accountability were blurred.

Coalition efforts to build an Afghan police force were painfully slow at first. By 2003 the U.S. State Department decided to speed things up by deploying the Virginia-based defense contractor DynCorp International, which had held previous contracts to train police officers in Kosovo and Haiti. The company began setting up a string of training centers across the country. After the Defense Department took a role in overseeing that work in 2005, it squabbled constantly with State over whether the training should emphasize police work or counterinsurgency.

Neither the State Department nor DynCorp was prepared for the job they faced. Most of the recruits are rural villagers who have never been inside a classroom. Roughly 15 percent test positive for drugs, primarily hashish. Few know how to use a toothbrush or drive, and nearly 90 percent are illiterate. In 2005 DynCorp opened a new police academy on the outskirts of Jalalabad, and within a few months the academy’s drains backed up. Maintenance workers discovered that the septic tanks were full of smooth stones—a toilet-paper substitute used by many rural Afghans. DynCorp had to bring in backhoes to repair the problem, and the company had to add two days of classes in basic hygiene.

The ANP still takes just about anyone who applies. “Our recruits are unemployed youth with no education and no prospects,” says Police Col. Mohammad Hashim Babakarkhil, deputy commander of Kabul’s central police-training center. Since January 2007, upwards of 2,000 police have been killed in action—more than twice the figure for Afghan Army soldiers. U.S. officers say as many as half the police casualties were a result of firearms accidents and traffic collisions.

It’s practically impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks, says a former senior DynCorp executive, requesting anonymity because he continues to work in the industry. But that was the time frame State and Defense set for the course. “They were not going to be trained police officers. We knew that. They knew that,” the former executive says. “It was a numbers game.” In fact, the course has now been cut from eight weeks to six in order to squeeze in more trainees. (“We believe the training is appropriate under the circumstances,” says Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson. DynCorp spokesman Douglas Ebner says the basic-training course is part of a more extensive 40-week program, and is supported by further “field monitoring, mentoring, and advising.” Training hours have been extended to make up for the lost weeks, he says. DynCorp does “not make the policies, recruit the police candidates, or design the program,” he adds, saying the company has “fully met” its objective of providing highly qualified police trainers.)

Whether or not recruits have mastered their subjects, almost everyone graduates. Even if they fail the firearms test, they’re issued a weapon and put on the street. Only the Interior Ministry can flunk a candidate, and that rarely happens. “There were a lot of Afghans who seemed to have some patriotism and wanted to make their country better,” recalls Tracy Jeansonne, a former deputy sheriff from Louisiana who worked for DynCorp from May 2006 to June 2008. “But a lot of the police officers wanted to be able to extort money from locals. If we caught them, we’d suggest they be removed. But we couldn’t fire anybody. We could only make suggestions.”

A former midlevel DynCorp official calls the program “dysfunctional.” Requesting anonymity because he doesn’t want problems with his former employer, he displays dozens of weekly reports sent to State and military officials; almost all include some mention of an Afghan police officer or commander as “corrupt.” Yet of the 170,000 or so Afghans trained under the program since its inception, only about 30,000 remain on the force, according to State and Defense officials. “In terms of retention and attrition, we can say there’s a problem,” says Steve Kraft, who oversees the program for the State Department. The cops’ base salary and hazardous-duty pay were recently raised to match Afghan Army levels, but no one knows if those changes are really helping. “Once they leave the training center, we currently don’t know whether they stay with the force or quit,” Kraft says. “The bottom line is, we just don’t know.”

And what has become of all the billions of dollars this program has cost America? Government investigators aren’t entirely sure. Fundamental questions are raised in an audit of the Afghan police-training program released in February by the State and Defense departments’ inspectors general. When State finally sent an “invoice-reconciliation team” to review expense receipts submitted under one particular contract, it discovered that $322 million in invoices had been “approved even though they were not allowable, allocable, or reasonable.” What’s more, the auditors said, half those invoices included errors.

The lapses don’t stop there. The audit says State Department officials “did not conduct adequate surveillance for two task orders in excess of $1 billion.” According to the auditors, State’s contract supervisors didn’t adequately oversee the use of government-owned property, failed to maintain contract files properly, and sometimes neglected to “match goods to receiving reports”—meaning, evidently, that they didn’t verify that the U.S. government had actually received the goods it had paid for. (DynCorp’s Ebner responds: “We are fully engaged with the Department of State to ensure complete and thorough reconciliation of all invoices, and recognize and welcome the emphasis on sufficient oversight personnel to complete this process.”)

Those failures should have been no surprise. The audit also found that State routinely short-staffed its contract-monitoring office in Afghanistan. At one point, only three contract officers were on the ground overseeing DynCorp’s $1.7 billion training contract. A former DynCorp official who worked in Afghanistan, asking not to be named because he remains in the government contracting business, says he asked the State Department repeatedly for concrete goals for the police contract but never got firm answers. “I’d ask them: ‘Please explain to me what a successful training program was. What are the standards you want us to apply?’ There was no vision for the future.” (Assistant Secretary Johnson says, “From the start, our training program was based on a clear, professionally developed curriculum … A simple head count of the number of individuals on the ground ignores the substantial back-office support our contract oversight personnel had from Washington.”)

A new set of difficulties arose last summer. Caldwell’s predecessor, Gen. Richard Formica, decided that Defense should take direct control of the training contract. To avoid a lengthy bidding competition, he suggested folding the police-training mission into an existing anti-drug and counterterrorism program overseen by the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. Bids were limited to companies already under contract to the missile command, effectively shutting out DynCorp. In the end, only two firms wound up bidding: Northrop Grumman and Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater.

DynCorp fought back. In December the company filed a formal protest to block the Defense Department from seizing control of the contract. Last week the Government Accountability Office upheld DynCorp’s complaint and suggested that the competition be open to all comers, including DynCorp as well as Xe and Northrop. DynCorp’s CEO, William Ballhaus, recently told investors that the company’s contract had been extended until July in any case; now it seems the new bidding process will take much longer.

At Kabul’s police training center, a team of 35 Italian carabinieri recently arrived to supplement DynCorp’s efforts. Before the Italians showed up at the end of January for a one-year tour, the recruits were posting miserable scores on the firing range. But the Italians soon discovered that poor marksmanship wasn’t the only reason: the sights of the AK-47 and M-16 rifles the recruits were using were badly out of line. “We zeroed all their weapons,” says Lt. Rolando Tommasini. “It’s a very important thing, but no one had done this in the past. I don’t know why.”

The Italians also had a different way of teaching the recruits to shoot. DynCorp’s instructors started their firearms training with 20-round clips at 50 meters; the recruits couldn’t be sure at first if they were even hitting the target. Instead the carabinieri started them off with just three bullets each and a target only seven meters away. The recruits would shoot, check the target, and be issued three more rounds. When they began gaining confidence, the distance was gradually increased to 15, then 30, and then 50 meters. On a recent day on the firing range only one of 73 recruits failed the shooting test. The Italians say that’s a huge improvement. (DynCorp says its civilian police advisers are “highly qualified”; the average trainer has more than a decade of law-enforcement experience.)

Caldwell also says it’s just easier to work with paramilitary police units, such as the Italians and the French gendarmerie, than with contractors. Active-duty police units have a coherent and disciplined chain of command, Caldwell says. “When I bring in a contractor unit I’m getting a different group of folks,” he says. “It may be someone who was a state patrolman, a local sheriff, or a policeman from New York City, each operating under different standards and with different backgrounds.” Everything has to be negotiated. “If I say to my contractor that I want to make a change, he may say, ‘Well, I’m not sure if that’s really the best way,’ ” says Caldwell. “But if I can bring in a gendarmerie force, they’re ready to go … and take instructions well.”

By the end of October, Caldwell hopes to build the force to 109,000 members, including an “elite unit” that so far has roughly 4,900 members. That outfit is called the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP). It’ll be used for particularly sensitive assignments like Marja. ANCOP members get 16 weeks of training, and they’re required to have at least a third-grade proficiency in reading and writing. So far, reviews from Marja are mixed. “The new police are more organized, committed, responsible, and helpful than the previous police, who were more like a criminal gang,” Assadullah, a school principal, tells newsweek. (Like many Afghans, he uses only one name.) Local shopkeeper Hajji Noruddin Khan disagrees. “We are as disappointed with the new police as we were with the old police,” he complains.

Quality matters. “In the rush to increase the number of trained police officers, we must remember that the end goal is a civilian police force capable of promoting good government, not a paramilitary adjunct for the counterinsurgency fight,” warns Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top U.S. Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, puts it more succinctly: “I’d rather have one well-trained cop than 10 untrained.” Besides, the fact is that no one is quite sure how many Afghan police there really are. The Americans are only now in the process of trying to create a database that will positively identify and track recruits. Without such data, it’s more than difficult to catch “ghost” troops who exist only as names on the payroll, not to mention possible Taliban infiltrators.

But the buildup continues, and so does the training. On the firing range just outside Kabul, one of the few decent marksmen is Khair Mohammad, an illiterate 24-year-old from northern Afghanistan. “I’ve already had a lot of practice shooting at the Taliban,” he says. He’s been a cop for two years, serving one year in Kandahar and another on checkpoints just outside Marja. “I lost a lot of friends in the fighting,” he says. Now he’s getting his first taste of formal training, and hoping to join ANCOP. He figures he’d earn about double the $180 a month (including combat pay) he’s been getting. His trainers are doing their best to make him worth the extra salary. “One thing the police don’t know is good relations with the people,” says Carabinieri Lt. Col. Massimo Deiana. “We’re trying to train them to respect and relate to people.” If such a skill is teachable at all, it could be far more important in the long run than knowing how to shoot straight.

With Sami Yousafzai in Kabul. T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter with ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

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