KABUL - At the gate to the National Police Academy, on the western edge of the Afghan capital, the guard's rifle bolts into firing position. "Stop!" he shouts.
It's 4 a.m., the street lights are not working and the guard's superiors had neglected to tell him that the red Toyota Corolla would be arriving. Time and again, suicide bombers have attacked Afghanistan's police and army outposts. So one of the first lessons taught at the academy is diligence.
The readiness of Afghanistan's security forces is central to U.S. and NATO plans to withdraw all forces from the country by the end of 2014, and the academy's new commander wants to help turn around a 146,000-strong national police force long riddled with corruption, incompetence and factional rivalries.
Such problems are not always acknowledged publicly. On Thursday, President Hamid Karzai said that his military and police are prepared to take full responsibility for security if the American-led international coalition decides to speed up the handover. And a statement released this week by the NATO-led force, ISAF, called the Afghan National Army the most respected institution in the country and said "the Afghan national police also rank highly."
But the National Police Academy's director, Mullah Dad Pazoish, presents a different viewpoint.
"There are police who don't even know the meaning of the word `police,'" Pazoish said in a recent interview. "We have generals who have no training. They are the jihadi commanders."
International observers warn that the largely illiterate police force will disintegrate after 2014 into factional militias more loyal to local warlords than to the state.
There are also questions about the ability of the Afghan army, which continues to suffer from a high rate of attrition.
A report released this month by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that Afghan security forces are not even close to being ready to take over security nationwide. "Only 7 percent of the army and 9 percent of the national police units are considered capable of independent action even with advisers," the report stated.
And Karzai himself complained two weeks ago that Afghan forces are not getting the weapons they need from NATO allies, suggesting Afghanistan might have to go to other countries such as China and Russia to acquire them.
Little noticed amid the criticism is that the police have taken the heaviest casualties in the war. On average, nearly 10 police officers are killed or wounded every day, according to the ISAF statement.
The risks were clearly on the mind of the guard who recently pointed his weapon at the Toyota approaching the gates of the 70-year-old academy, the nation's oldest, a sprawling compound that harks back to a peaceful Afghanistan ruled by a monarchy.
Gen. Nawroz Khaliq, who took command of the academy eight months ago, wants to restore higher standards to the institution. A career cop with a receding hairline, Khaliq envisions an academy that will create a new generation of policemen who understand the law and are committed to upholding it.
"In 10 years this academy I promise will be as good as any in the world," he said inside his comfortable office across from the parade grounds. A giant picture of Karzai hangs on the wall. A bouquet of dusty plastic flowers dominates a small bookcase, and plush couches line the walls.
Khaliq said the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014 could be an opportunity for Afghans to rise to the occasion and prove themselves, but he acknowledged that the job ahead is colossal.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, the academy's traditional three-year program was mostly supplanted with a new eight-week training course in the rush to turn out uniformed policemen. Large sections of the police were drawn from the ranks of militias whose warlord leaders sit in the Afghan parliament. Others came from remote villages. Few had seen the inside of a school.
Standards for the eight-week police training program are low, according to Khaliq. There is no educational requirement, and new recruits don't even have to be able to sign their name, just provide their fingerprints. They do, however, need to be recommended by a government official, who vouches they are neither Taliban nor a criminal.
Falaq Niaz Samedi, a lawyer and law professor at the academy, said government officials promote poor-quality candidates and then blame the academy for turning out corrupt police.
"I was at a seminar when the deputy (interior) minister said to me, `All police are robbers,' but I told him, `Police are not the robbers. It is you people who are bringing in the robbers. You take all those people that you send out and the police will not be robbers.'"
When he arrived on the job, Khaliq said he was surprised to find only a handful of students in the three-year program. The academy's entrance exam had also been suspended for two years.
He immediately held nationwide exams in which 8,257 men took part. Nine hundred were selected for the academy.
But a discouraged-looking Khaliq said the government is already applying pressure to reduce the standards for entrance. Currently recruits have to have a Grade 12 education and be 18 to 25 years old, but the government wants to increase the upper age limit to 35 - presumably to accommodate more unemployed militiamen.
Khaliq said 30 years of war have devastated the country's education system and that even high school graduates today are poorly educated. Nevertheless, Khaliq is trying to shore up standards, increasing the three-year program to four to allow for one year of specialization. The curriculum has been expanded to include human rights, prisoner treatment and gender studies.
Nearly 30 women are enrolled at the academy. They study with their male counterparts but train separately and eat their lunch behind a giant white curtain, hidden from the hundreds of men in the cavernous dining halls. The female police officers are trained to protect and search other women. They are not deployed to outposts and checkpoints. At the academy they wear the gray uniform, with a longer tunic and a black headscarf.
A female recruit who goes by only one name, Spushmai, said she does not fear retaliation from insurgents who advocate a strict code of conduct for women, but that "we will be very worried after the foreigners leave."
Another fresh recruit, who wanted to practice his English, spoke haltingly.
"We are the future. We will have real training and education," said Azim Aga, 18, from northern Baghlan province. "Right now the police who are on the street are not educated and are from the jihad," a reference to Afghanistan's successive wars. "We will be proud policemen."
But pride alone will not defeat the militants.
In one Taliban attack on a police station this month, only two of the four officers had weapons, according to Khaliq. He said police have more vehicles than weapons and that barely 60 percent of the police out on the streets and in the rural outback have communications equipment.
Khaliq, who acknowledged the mountain of criticism heaped on the police, said they also make some of the greatest sacrifices, living among the insurgents, not knowing if their neighbor is Taliban.
This month in Ghazni province, Zalmai Faizi, a seven-year veteran of the national police force, buried his 5-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. Taliban militants shot and killed them both as they sat in his parked car outside the family's home.
Faizi's voice broke, his eyes watered and he bit his lip as he recounted the killing in an interview. For a moment he couldn't speak. He clenched his fist and in a hushed voice said: "I don't want anyone to see me cry, because it will give strength to my enemies and hurt the morale of our policemen."