The U.S. military in Afghanistan is trying to root out the corruption that has plagued that country’s army and police forces, said Army Col. Bill Hix, who is tasked with Afghan Army and police development in volatile southern Afghanistan, the heart of Taliban country. Hix, speaking to reporters last week by phone from Afghanistan, said he’s seen considerable progress in both Afghan police and Army performance, with police and army units fighting side-by-side in embattled Helmand province, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in recent years.
The performance of the Afghan police has lagged, in part, because the U.S. only really began funneling resources to the police training effort beginning last summer, whereas the Afghan Army training mission has been a priority for going on five years. The lack of attention given to beefing up the Afghan police has been one of the most glaring failures of the whole enterprise in Afghanistan. A competent police force is one of the most vital components in any counterinsurgency, as they are in daily contact with the population, are an essential part of providing security in cities, villages and the countryside, and are often the most/only visible government presence.
That also means the police are a primary target of insurgent attacks. The Afghan Ministry of Interior reports that 700 policemen were killed in the first six months of 2008. Hix said the Afghan police casualties run at a rate three times that of coalition and Afghan army casualties. That high casualty rate has begun to drop, he said, with a new training program and efforts to provide them with better weaponry.
The U.S. initially focused on building up the Afghan army, outsourcing police training to DynCorp, an American contractor. A RAND study by Seth Jones completed this year found “wide variation in the quality of DynCorp police trainers,” and that many trainers had little experience or competence. The U.S. military has now largely taken over that mission.
When Afghan army units deploy to fight insurgents they are usually accompanied by U.S. or coalition mentors who can call in air strikes, medevac helicopters and who bring along up-armored Humvees. That’s not the case with the shabby Afghan police who lack heavy weapons, ammunition, body armor or armored vehicles. Not surprisingly, the police often collaborate with the insurgents, for survival if nothing else. Police have been known to sell weapons and ammunition to the black market, which means they’re often selling to the Taliban, according to U.S. officers who have served there.
Army Maj. Tim Byrne, who spent a year training the Afghan Army, said Afghan soldiers often refuse to go out on patrol alone, “because they’re scared to go up against the insurgents without U.S. support.” Few of Afghanistan’s formidable mujahedin, experienced front line fighters who fought the Soviets, have joined the national army, as they lack the required levels of education. One problem Byrne noted among Afghan army officers: because many were officers in the Russian army, they have the same Russian mind set that they don’t make decisions on their own, they have to call a higher officer for approval. Everything is top down and there is little or no initiative from junior officers.
Corruption remains a significant problem in both the Afghan army and police, according to Hix. The Taliban’s deep pockets allow them to pay their foot soldiers higher wages than the Afghan army or police. Taliban are reportedly paid $150 a month, whereas the Afghan army and police only make $60 a month, and their pay is often delayed, or portions of it skimmed off by higher officers. The officers in the Afghan army typically buy their command, because it’s a position of power and they can then skim money from the central government.
Hix said the U.S. military has begun a “counter corruption” effort targeting both the Afghan army and police. He said he knew personally of an Afghan army battalion commander who was demanding kickbacks from construction contracts in his area and is now expected to be relieved of command. Hix said an “increasingly energetic” audit team operates within the Afghan army intended to root out corruption.
Police corruption remains a much bigger challenge, he said. The police have a “long history” of skimming local taxes and other shakedowns. The military is trying to clean up the police pay program that government officials at all levels have often treated like a personal ATM machine, Hix said. “The governor would get a cut, the district governor would get a cut, the chief of police would get a cut, and then the patrolman… would get some very, very small percentage of his salary.”
Hix said the various insurgent groups fighting in the Kandahar area display few signs of any top down, central leadership; rather, they operate along tribal or provincial lines. The Taliban are waging a classic rural insurgency, with intimidation and targeted assassinations, often public beheadings, of government figures used as a common tactic to cow the local populace. The local people lately appear to be putting more trust in the government security forces, he said.