The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 14, 2012

Local Afghan police fall short, study finds

Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — A U.S.-backed program to recruit police in rural Afghanistan has failed to significantly stem the insurgency, with some units becoming deeply entangled in criminal activity, including bribe-taking and extortion, according to a Pentagon-funded study.

The 13,000-member Afghan Local Police has been hailed by U.S. commanders as a vital, homegrown defense force in areas where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest. But the unpublished study obtained by the Los Angeles Times contradicts official U.S. claims that the police are driving down attacks.

U.S. officials plan to increase the force to as many as 30,000 as American troops withdraw by the end of 2014 after once promising the local police would be temporary.

The study, based on classified data and produced for the U.S. special operations command in Afghanistan, presents a much less positive picture.

It found that 1 in 5 U.S. special operations teams advising the local police units complained that they had committed violence or otherwise abused civilians. In recent months, some U.S. troops accused the Afghan police of drug abuse, bribe taking, rape and drug trafficking.

Afghan officials, interviewed separately, described the local forces as being poorly led, which allows them to engage in extortion and petty harassment of villagers. Sometimes the offenses are more serious, with police seizing land, assaulting people, running private jails and demanding a role in local financial transactions.

The study says violence initially increases after U.S. special forces go into an area to root out insurgents. After the Americans withdraw and leave behind a police unit, violence usually drops back to the level before the U.S. teams first intervened, the study found.

As a result, insurgent activity in most of the 78 areas patrolled by the local police is not significantly different than in areas without the units, the report concludes. The force is mostly deployed in villages in Afghanistan’s east and south.

“Violence returns to (previous) levels after 15 months and levels comparable to other areas after 21 months,” according to the study, which was produced by Rand Corp., a policy research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., that tracks the Afghan police program for the special operations command.

The study examined attacks over the last 18 months, a period that has seen violence drop across Afghanistan. It was based on the U.S. military’s classified database of “Significant Action Reports,” which includes known attacks on NATO forces, Afghan security forces, civilians and infrastructure.

Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, a spokesman for the special operations command in Afghanistan, defended the work of the local police and disputed the findings of the Rand study. The level of “insurgent activity is dramatically lower” 15 months after an area is cleared by U.S. troops and a police unit begins patrolling, he said, without providing statistics.

The use of the “Significant Actions” database to measure levels of violence “may actually understate the effects” on security, he said, because there often had been no personnel from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in the areas where the police units are created to report attacks.

In less than two years since the police program began, “our assessments confirm an overwhelming trend in ... providing increased security in the communities they serve. Some of the most compelling evidence comes not from surveys or assessments, but from the insurgency itself,” which “has determined ALP as the single biggest threat to their operations,” he said, using an acronym for Afghan Local Police.

Incidents of physical abuse and bribery by the police were “relatively rare” and the rate of bribe-taking was “relatively low” compared to regular Afghan police and army, Harrell said.

In public, the Pentagon has portrayed the Afghan police force as a success. In a report to Congress earlier this month on progress in the war, the Pentagon asserted that “overall security has improved in most villages” where the police unit patrol and that violence “gradually drops” after 15 to 18 months.

The benefits and risks of quickly creating small, local defense units are a subject of intense debate in the U.S. and Afghan governments. Both are looking for ways to lock in security gains as U.S. and other NATO troops withdraw combat forces over the next 2  1/2 years.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is now director of the CIA, proposed creating the Afghan Local Police in 2010 when he commanded the war in Afghanistan. Petraeus brought the idea for a local security force from Iraq, where a similar effort called the Sons of Iraq helped improve security when he was in command there.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially resisted, concerned that some Afghan officials would try to use the units as independent militias.

Petraeus eventually won Karzai’s support by promising that the Ministry of Interior, which the central government controls, would pay and oversee the force.

But in some areas, Afghan officials say, the local police are under control of political power brokers and are fueling criminal activity and violence.

In parts of Helmand province, local police “are taking the law into their own hands, beating people and taking money,” said Sami Sadaat, a security expert who is a former policy adviser to the Interior Ministry. “Yes, they helped remove the Taliban. But, in a way, they replaced them.”

Internecine fighting is common, sometimes over personal grudges and sometimes at the apparent behest of the insurgents.

In late March, a member of the police in Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan, killed nine of his comrades, first putting sleeping drugs in their tea, then slaughtering them after they passed out.

The program “isn’t good for the people or the country,” said Nezamuddin Nasher, chief of Khanabad district in Kunduz province. “They have lots of tensions among themselves, sometimes resulting in murders.”

He cited a recent clash between two Afghan Local Police commanders in Kunduz, in which five people were killed.

“If someone wants to sell a piece of land, members of the (police) want their cut,” he said. “They also demand ushur (a share of the harvest) from every single family, and tell people it is a kind of tax. This is what ordinary people face from them every day.”

U.S. officials say police recruits are vetted by local tribal councils and by the Afghan government. But in some villages, former Taliban fighters who switch sides and join the government’s “reintegration” program are funneled into the local police — a revolving-door syndrome that leaves many villagers fearful.

Afghanistan’s army and national police are supposed to reach 352,000 personnel this year, but even such a force cannot cover remote areas where the Taliban is strongest. The local police are supposed to help fill the gap.

“In some areas, they’ve been a very positive influence, removing insurgents and bringing security. Now these areas are more secure, and people feel safer,” said Shukria Paikan Ahmadi, an Afghan parliamentarian from Kunduz.

But she added that in other areas the local police are “a bigger problem than the Taliban.”