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An Afghan police commander has been arrested on suspicion of organising roadside bomb attacks, the latest in a series of incidents underlining the risks to Nato’s plans for a rapid expansion of the country’s security forces.
The commander had belonged to a ring of insurgents in Kapisa, a province north of Kabul patrolled by French forces, the international military mission in Afghanistan said on Sunday. Roadside bombs cause the majority of foreign troop deaths.
The threat of police colluding with the Taliban is one of a host of obstacles to plans to accelerate the expansion of the Afghan army and police, to allow western troops – due to peak at about 140,000 – to leave.
Nato allies and Afghanistan’s government agreed last month to expand the police from an estimated 92,000 officers today to 134,000 by the end of 2011.
Uncertainty over the true size of the force, high rates of desertion and endemic corruption mean some international officials suspect these targets are unattainable.
In Arghandab valley, a transit point for insurgents crisscrossing the southern Kandahar province, the complexity of the task is clear. Loyalties are uncertain, power struggles simmer in the ranks and logistical support is lacking.
“There’s not enough ammunition, vehicles or radios,” said 2nd Lieutenant Khan Mohammed, a logistics officer for police stationed at a US base clinging to mountains forming the valley’s southern flank.
After six weeks leading a team of 12 trainers based at the outpost, Malcolm Grace, a captain in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, is torn between hope and exasperation.
Many of the police recruits he mentors have not been paid – some for six months. They are so short of ammunition that officers defending a checkpoint from a Taliban attack almost ran out of bullets. The 250 or so police in a district of more than 55,000 people do not have enough flak jackets or vehicles.
When Capt Grace accompanies patrols, locals are pleased to see the police being supervised – it allays their fears of being robbed by the them. A nearby unit from Afghanistan’s army, a generally more professional force, hold the local police in such contempt, another officer says, that they will not even play them at soccer.
Capt Grace’s hope springs from the fact that a core of 20-25 officers have largely stopped smoking marijuana in uniform. Some have risked their lives dismantling roadside bombs with their bare hands. They are eager, he says, to go out on patrol with him or attend lectures on Afghan police law.
“There is a lot of hope here. The biggest problems are logistical and their pay. If guys aren’t paid for two to three months – or six months in some places – how can you expect them to do a professional job?” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
Clad in a slightly grubby blue uniform and plastic shoes bought with his own money, Ghulam Shah, a patrolman in the district, complained that his pay was two months late. “I wasn’t trained to be a mechanic, or a tailor, or a carpenter, so I became a policeman,” he said. “But I am proud to be serving my country.”
The Nato-led force says there are plans to expand a pilot programme that uses a mobile phone banking service to ensure 53 police in the Jalrez district in the eastern Wardak Province are paid on time and without senior officers skimming their salaries.
Some of the police had been pleasantly surprised by the scale of their payments, said one senior western civilian official, who suggested that previously government officials had been skimming off some of the salaries.
The government also plans to try to boost low literacy levels to help officers follow procedures to obtain equipment.
Preventing infiltration will be more complicated. A policeman shot dead five British troops in Helmand province last November. The Taliban said the shooter was acting on their behalf.
In Arghandab, Capt Grace is concerned about the loyalties of several hundred officers manning 16 checkpoints in the valley. He suspects that three Taliban infiltrators helped insurgents run over one of the barriers late last year and kill seven patrolmen.
Speaking just before leaving for a honeymoon in Hawaii, Capt Grace nonetheless believes he can make a difference when he returns.
“I’ve made a lot of progress with the guys here at the district centre. They’re good policeman, they’re motivated, they’re tactically proficient,” he said. “We get the logistics sorted out, the rest will fall into place.”