Suspension of Afghan police training sign of US suspicion

4 Sep

Members of the Afghan Local Police patrolled near Sangsar in April. Training for the programme has been suspended by the US, and revetting is planned.


by Richard A. Oppel Jr. & Graham Bowley in Kabul, Afghanistan

The New York Times

2 September 2012

An American commander’s decision to suspend the training of new Afghan Local Police recruits for at least a month was the first tap on the brakes for what has been a headlong drive to fill out a police force. From the very beginning, the programme has been one of the most controversial in the Afghan security plan.

The suspension, by major general Raymond Thomas III, the head of the American Special Operations command here, came to light on Saturday. It was rooted in an intense surge of insider killings by Afghan forces against their Western trainers, including a stretch of one week in August in which five Special Operations trainers were gunned down, officials said.

But it was also a reflection of growing concerns that the entire effort to train Afghan forces – a linchpin of American plans to leave Afghanistan by 2014 that includes the much larger Afghan Army and National Police programmes – had grown so quickly that it was putting intense strain on the system to weed out bad or disloyal candidates.

Lieutenant general Adrian Bradshaw, the British deputy commander of the American-led military coalition here, said that after a five-year stretch in which the overall Afghan security force strength had grown to more than 350,000, up from fewer than 100,000 in 2007, there was clearly a need to re-evaluate the vetting process. Thousands are to be rescreened.

“It is hardly surprising that that process offered some challenges,” general Bradshaw said. “One of the things we had identified some time ago was the need to continue to improve the vetting process of recruits.”

He noted that the Afghan National Army and National Police had already been conducting an investigation since March that has led to 200 to 300 Afghan soldiers being removed from duty, a portion of whom now face criminal prosecution or dismissal. A large swath of the regular Afghan security forces has been rescreened, but he did not know the precise number.

But even before the escalation of insider killings by Afghan forces, the Afghan Local Police programme had been a singular cause of concern.

American Special Operations forces, who are in charge of the effort to train and arm local police militias to resist the Taliban in remote areas, have long grappled with problems within the local police programme, from petty thievery and bullying to extortion rackets and murder, one American official in Washington said. Human rights workers have raised alarms about abuses by the Afghan force members for years, and president Hamid Karzai was wary about a programme with the potential to set up a whole new system of unaccountable militias.

Bad behavior by members of the Afghan Local Police, roughly 16,000 nationwide, “goes back to recruitment and vetting,” the American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the programme is officially regarded as a success. “The process is broken, or maybe it never completely was working. If you recruit the young tough guys in a village, they go out and act like young tough guys with power.”

Those issues, and the fact that the crimes are being committed by forces acting with the imprimatur of the United States, in many ways pose a greater long-term threat to Afghanistan’s stability and the American role there in coming years than insider attacks, which may slow as the drawdown picks up pace, the American official said.

But the local police programme is also an enormous American investment, seen as critical to extending the fight against the Taliban once Nato is gone.

General Bradshaw said there has not been any internal debate about pulling back from the Afghan Local Police programme. “The ALP has proven to be extraordinarily capable,” he said.

Indeed, the training halt seems to be a local decision: general Thomas discussed his plan with his boss – general John. R. Allen of the Marine Corps, the commander of American and Nato troops in Afghanistan, who concurred – and he informed the Afghan Interior Ministry, an officer close to general Thomas said. But the debate seemed to stop there, for the decision surprised not only officials at the Pentagon but also the Afghan commander of the Afghan Local Police programme, general Ali Shah Ahmadzia, who said in an interview on Sunday that he had not known about it.

The halt involves only about 3 percent of the total number of Afghan security forces in training. No similar plan to halt training of regular Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police recruits has even been debated internally, general Bradshaw said. “I am not aware of any discussions of that nature,” he said.

General Bradshaw and other military officials said the halt was also partly because of the unique nature of the Afghan Local Police programme. While the Afghan National Army and National Police have extensive bureaucracies that can carry out revetting even as recruits continue to train, that was hardly possible with the local police programme, in which American Special Operations troops with little support structure fan out to some of the most remote and austere corners of Afghanistan and recruit and train new forces in careful negotiations with wary village elders fearful of Taliban reprisals.

Now, the training for roughly 1,000 new recruits has been paused in order for that vetting process to take place, American officials said.

Under that process, American trainers are demanding to know more about where recruits are from and their family background, especially if they have links to Pakistan, officials said. Members of the Afghan Local Police also have to be nominated by village elders who vouch for them, but that system has been identified as a serious weakness that must be improved.

Jack Keane, a former Army general and a mentor to David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan when the programme began, said that “the brilliance of the programme is also the vulnerability” because recruits are selected by elders, not by Americans. Although there has always been some form of Nato vetting, “we’re totally dependent on their judgment as to who they’ve selected.”

And some groups continue to warn of the dangers of reintroducing militia-like forces to a country long bedeviled by warlords. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported instances of killing, rape, theft and other abuses among the local police that raised “serious concerns about the ALP vetting, recruitment and oversight.” The group added: “Creation of the ALP is a high-risk strategy to achieve short-term goals in which local groups are again being armed without adequate oversight or accountability.” (At the time, Nato said that some aspects of the report were dated or incorrect.)

Afghan leaders also put some blame on Western forces who needlessly offend what should by now be obvious cultural sensitivities.

General Ahmadzia, the Afghan commander of the Afghan Local Police, said more needs to be done to educate Western troops. But he endorsed the halt as a way to “stop heartbreaking and shocking incidents in the future,” and he said that “under no circumstances” does it suggest that Afghan and American forces have lost faith in each other.

Some analysts said, though, that the training halt shows that mistrust is manifest – even if the realities of the 2014 security handover mean any suspension cannot last long.

“One would be a fool to believe America’s decision to suspend the training of the ALP does not indicate that they do not trust their Afghan partners, and it will take a while to rebuild that trust,” said Jawid Kohistani, a security analyst in Kabul.

“At the end of the day the Americans won’t have a choice but to restart the training,” he said, “because they do not have much time left.”

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