By Mark Sedra (in Waterloo)

At a time when Afghanistan needs good police more than ever, the NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan, responsible for building up the Afghan National Security Forces, has taken the surprising step of cutting the length of basic training from eight to six weeks. I suppose this step is not that surprising considering the extraordinary pressure on the mission to increase the size of the police from its current force total of roughly 92,000 to 110,000 by the end of October and 160,000 by 2014. This may also be a reaction to the startling admission by Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the training effort, that barely 25% of the current Afghan National Police (ANP) on duty had received formal police training. This statement raises the question of what happened to the tens of thousands of police that have supposedly graduated from one of the country’s eight US-sponsored regional training centers. The ANP’s annual attrition rate, estimated to be somewhere between 25% and 30% (a significant number of which defect to the Taliban), is one answer. The other may be that many of those police never existed. They are “ghost police”, part of the numbers game in Afghanistan perpetuated by ANP commanders to pilfer salaries and donor agencies and private contractors to demonstrate progress to impatient governments at home.

Afghanistan surely needs more police boots on the ground to fulfill their hold function in NATO’s clear, hold and build counter-insurgency strategy, but sacrificing quality for quantity in building the police simply hasn’t worked to date. A common refrain I have heard from police trainers who have worked with the ANP over the past eight years is that they need more time, not less to mould the force – 85% of which are illiterate, 80% of which are engaged in some form of corruption and up to 50% of which use illegal narcotics – into a marginally effective institution. In Iraq, the US-administered basic training regimen for the police is 12 weeks, double the revised program in Afghanistan. Consider also that the only effective branch of the ANP, the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), numbering about 4,000, receives 16 weeks of training.

Those managing the ANP training process would likely respond to such criticism by emphasizing the role embedded mentors will play in filling the gap caused by the reduction of the basic training period. Police experts I have spoken to question whether in-service training can replace basic instruction. After all, mentors need police with an adequate base level of knowledge to work with, particularly in Afghanistan’s challenging security environment. The other problem is that there is not enough mentors to do the job, with a current gap of 500 that NATO member states have seemingly been unable to fill.

All of this seems to lead to the conclusion that  the current training effort is more about optics, creating the visible conditions for an international exit strategy, than it is about improving the security situation for Afghans. A massive increase in the size of the police could succeed in stabilizing the security situation in the short-term, but over the long-term this approach will do nothing to transform a police that the vast majority of Afghans view as woefully corrupt, abusive, factionalized, and incompetent.  

Lawrence D. Nicolson, the top US Marine Commander in southern Afghanistan, said it best in an email to the Washington Post:

“I'd rather have no police than bad police, because bad police destroy local faith and confidence in their government and push [the locals] to the Taliban…No matter how hard the Marines and Afghan Army work to earn the public trust, bad police can unhinge those efforts in a heartbeat.”

When NATO completed its recent military operation in Marja, local elders told the US Marines that they didn’t want the ANP back. Many other communities across Afghanistan would share that sentiment. NATO’s minimalist and myopic approach to police training will only exacerbate this distrust in the police and the Afghan state.


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