Policing under threat of suicide bombers and IEDs
CNN/David Ariosto
August 17th, 2011
04:02 PM ET

Policing under threat of suicide bombers and IEDs

By CNN's David Ariosto in Kabul, Afghanistan

A pair of Oakley sunglasses wrap around the face of an Afghan police officer riding atop a well-armed patrol - perhaps among the more anecdotal indications of western influence in this central Asian capital.

His mirrored lenses reflect the back-end of a Ford Ranger pick-up truck, painted army green.

The two-truck convoy is packed with more than two dozen of his heavily armed comrades, a scantly-used term that smacks of Soviet influence that once bore down on this region.

The officers circle the city, reinforcing checkpoints that comprise what authorities have dubbed the "Ring of Steel," perhaps a term meant to inspire a sense of confidence within Kabul's inner capital.

But his job description is an unenviable one:  patrol the city, keep it safe and watch for suicide bombers.

"If you see a suicide attacker, you should try to arrest him," said Mohammad Ghalam, a police officer operating a nearby check-point. "But if you can't, you'll have to kill him quickly."

While the outside observer might consider that statement somewhat contradictory, Ghalam's words aptly reflect the duality of working as a civilian officer in a time of war.

Police trucks in the capital are commonly equipped with heavy machine guns. Those who man them - or even just sit behind the big guns - wear body armor, sling automatic weapons and are often clad in multi-pocketed apparel used to stuff spare cartridges.

Suicide attacks, gun-battles and roadside bombs are their daily threats.

"I think our biggest challenge comes from the VIPs who drive up (to police checkpoints)," said Ghalam. "They never want to have their vehicle searched." 

Yet, amid the range of their responsibilities, Afghan cops are also plagued by corruption, mismanagement and murky allegiances, which have long raised questions about their abilities in the absence of NATO.

Like most issues in Afghanistan, it's difficult to offer any singular or overarching review of police in a country that is perhaps more defined by its provincial and tribal ties than it is by the confines of its national boundaries.

But in April, the U.S. government tried.

A report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that despite heavy investment and training of Afghan police - much of it provided by the United States - it was still impossible to say how many police were on the job or whether the right people were being paid.

Earlier this year, a Pentagon report noted that none of the country's 203 police units were deemed able to operate independently - i.e., without NATO assistance.

Still, America aims to put 134,000 Afghan police officers on the street by this fall, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

That's no easy task, given that combat and weapons training must also share space with another and slightly unusual lesson: Reading classes.

The literacy rate for incoming recruits - Afghan soldiers and police officers - is roughly 14%, said Jack Kem, deputy to the NATO Training Mission.

That means "86% of our recruits are unable to read and write at the third-grade level," he said in May, according to a DOD statement. "This has been an enormous challenge."

And yet the challenges are not exclusively Afghan-based.

An U.S. audit report released Monday blamed poor coordination and a lack of oversight on the U.S. government during the process of switching control of Afghan police training between the departments of State and Defense.

It also blamed a U.S. contractor for failing to have "428 of the 728 required personnel in place within the 120-day transition period."

That shortage has "placed the overall mission at risk," it said.

Meanwhile, 10,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to depart Afghanistan by year's end, with the United States marking a decade of war in October.

The full draw-down and transfer of security is set for the end of 2014.

Filed under: Security Brief
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