The European Union has just confirmed what anyone manning a checkpoint, and dodging bullets, in Kandahar or Lashkar Gah could have told you already: that policing in Afghanistan is probably the most dangerous job in the world.
Eighty per cent of Afghanistan’s policemen may be illiterate but that does not make them stupid, and it should come as no surprise, with the Taliban killing three or four of them every day, if these men are quitting the force in droves in order to escape the seemingly inevitable. The annual drop-out rate is now one in four, a new report from the EU (which helps train the Afghan police) has said. And that’s on top of the number, said to be spiralling, being lost to death or injury (4,500 in 2008).
This alarming rate of attrition presents a dilemma for an international community that, after eight years spent banging its head against Afghanistan’s mud-brick walls, now sees a functioning local security force as its only ticket home. On the one hand, they want to funnel more and more recruits through basic police training to get the numbers climbing again, but on the other hand, it’s the police’s lack of thorough instruction and, frankly, their resultant haplessness that makes them, there on the front line, easy meat for the insurgency. At a police substation in Kandahar City, which I visited in the run-up to Afghanistan’s recent presidential election, it was obvious that the dream of an effective Afghan police force would take many years to realise.
There I found a motley, though brave, band of the until-recently-unemployed charged with keeping the peace in what is a notorious Taliban heartland. The age gap between the two officers who greeted us outside the compound spanned generations. One was a skinny teenager, who fiddled boyishly with his machine gun and flushed red when we asked him questions; the other was an old man whose time knew nothing of proper arrest procedures or colour-coded organisational charts. Above all, they looked terribly vulnerable, those jobbing amateurs with their old guns and their shabby grey uniforms.
The Canadian military policeman who mentored the station and steered us inside was festooned with ammunition – magazines stuffed into his belt, others wedged into his pockets – as though the presence of so many Afghan officers was no kind of guarantee. “These guys are only issued with one magazine each,” he said, nodding at his Afghan colleagues with their careworn AK-47s. “Here, that’s not enough.”
The station commander, called Mulahgul, told us how proud they all were to be policemen of Afghanistan. “But there are only 70 of us to police this whole area,” he complained. Up on the watchtower, he showed us the sprawling tangle of homes that they had to manage. “Our area goes as far as you can see, right the way to Mullah Omar’s old house,” he said, pointing at the yellow-brown horizon. “We need 150 men.”
A new system of wall charts was making it easier for him to organise his jurisdiction, he went on; but most of his men couldn’t actually read the charts and, in Kandahar’s largely oral culture, every landmark was known by a range of different names, making even basic co-ordination a challenge.
It can be hard to sympathise with the Afghan police: they’re a corrupt and sordid bunch, we’re often told, who extort money from the very people they are meant to be protecting and who abandon their posts in favour of hashish and heroin.
“But they’re not corrupt because they’re bad men,” the Canadian officer explained. “They’re corrupt because they don’t have enough to eat.” And the drug taking? “Well, the system’s just broke from the bottom to the top….”
The head of the EU’s police mission in Afghanistan said recently that the police were improving and “mostly did a professional job” during the country’s chequered presidential election. But in areas such as Helmand and Kandahar, where the election was least successful, the decision of many police officers to go AWOL on polling day contributed significantly to the debacle.
Yet even then it’s hard to condemn them. These men are uneducated, poorly trained and facing odds that no US or British soldier would accept. Commander Mulahgul, if he’s still alive, would tell you that they need all the help they can get.