Afghan villagers had complained to the US Marines for days: The police are the problem, not the Taliban.
They steal from villagers and beat them. Days later, the Marines learned firsthand what the villagers meant.
As about 150 Marines and Afghan soldiers approached the police headquarters in the Helmand River town of Aynak, the police fired four gunshots at the combined force. No larger fight broke out, but once inside the headquarters the Marines found a raggedy force in a decrepit mud-brick compound that the police used as an open-pit toilet.
The meeting was tense. Some police were smoking pot. Others loaded their guns in a threatening manner near the Marines.
The US troops ousted the police two days later and installed a better trained force they had brought with them on their recently launched operation into southern Helmand. The original force was sent away for several weeks of training the US is conducting across Afghanistan to professionalize the country’s police.
But the encounter last week highlights one of the largest problems facing the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan in the face of an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency: The need for competent, trustworthy police. What many villagers see now is the opposite — a pot-smoking, ragtag, thieving force that makes the Taliban look disciplined in comparison.
Afghans across the country complain bitterly about the country’s police, whose junior ranks earn only about US$150 a month. Police pad their salaries by demanding bribes at checkpoints or kickbacks to investigate complaints, and police in opium poppy-growing regions turn a blind eye to drug smuggling for a cut of the profits, many Afghans complain.
The role of the local police is especially sensitive here in Helmand Province, the center of the lucrative opium poppy industry and a Taliban stronghold. A main goal of the ongoing US military operation is to restore Afghan government control — which requires a disciplined police force that commands public respect.
Over the past year, the Interior Ministry has tried to overhaul the police and dozens of corrupt officials have been fired. The US has faced similar problems in Iraq, where years of effort have so far failed to produce a police force with the same level of skill and professionalism as the Iraqi army.
Some 4,000 of the 21,000 additional troops US President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan this year will train Afghan police and soldiers, a belated boost to a lingering problem. US commanders have long complained of a shortage of trainers.
As Captain Drew Schoenmaker pulled his men out of Aynak’s police compound after that first meeting, the company commander told his Marines to “watch my 6 o’clock” — his back — in case the police again opened fire.
“I don’t trust a single one of them,” Schoenmaker said quietly.
“We had some complaints about the police force and the ways they did business,” Schoenmaker said later. “As I met the police force for the first time, there was an air of tension between us. We had received shots from their vicinity that day.”
The police commander told Schoenmaker his men had fired on the US-Afghan force because he didn’t know who they were.
Two days later, the Marines made a second visit to the police headquarters. Schoenmaker’s commander told him to kick the police out and install the new backup force. US fighter aircraft patrolled overhead in case a fight broke out.