July 1, 2009  

Forces in discord

Distrust between Afghan army and police hampers U.S. efforts

QALAT, Zabul Province, Afghanistan — Any long-term exit strategy for the U.S. forces flooding into southern Afghanistan will require the creation of reliable, professional Afghan security forces, but here in the heart of Taliban country the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are openly distrustful of each other, foreshadowing serious challenges on the path to a coalition victory.

“There’s a complete lack of trust” between the police and ANA leaders, said Army Maj. Paul Darling, the senior police mentor in Zabul.

This distrust has also spilled over into the ranks of the respective Afghan security forces’ U.S. advisers. The police and their U.S. mentors accuse their ANA counterparts of being reluctant to leave their bases and fight the insurgents, with some U.S. officers privately worrying that under the United States’ tutelage the ANA is becoming “a parade ground army,” more focused on polishing its readiness reports than on winning the bitter struggle with Islamic extremists.

For his part, the senior ANA officer in Zabul is deeply suspicious of the local police, accusing them of being in collusion with the Taliban on account of their shared Pashtun ethnicity.

“The ANA leadership is almost entirely consisting of educated people from Kabul who see everyone who’s not educated and from Kabul as a bunch of backward hicks, Taliban sympathizers, untrustworthy, unworthy altogether,” Darling said.

But although the mistrust between the police and the ANA is mutual, it is clear that the police and their U.S. Army advisers feel the greater sense of injustice. There are approximately 1,200 police in the province, compared with at least 2,500 ANA troops, who are better-paid, better-trained and better-equipped than their police counterparts. Nonetheless, the police are dying in combat at “well over twice the rate” of the ANA, leaving the survivors embittered, according to Darling.

At the core of the resentment felt by the police and their American mentors is their sense that alone of the various contingents of the Afghan national security forces — which also include the border police and the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service — the police are carrying the fight to the enemy.

“We told the ANA that you have to go farther and fight with the enemies, but they say ‘We don’t have any plan for that,’ ” Zabul police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said through an interpreter. “They’re happy to be inside their bases; they are just happy to get trained more.”

Darling concurred. “They just sit on their FOBs [forward operating bases] and polish their [readiness] reports: ‘I have all my trucks, I have all my soldiers, I have all my guns, and they’re trained and we are ready!’ ” he said, adding that when asked “Well, why don’t you do something?” the ANA’s response was along the lines of “Why would we want to do that? We might get killed out there.”

“The ANA is in a ‘defend’ position, they’re not in the position to attack,” Sarjang said. “But we should be attacking the enemy, not letting the enemy attack us. We should kill them in their forts, not let them attack our forts.”

“Our enemy is very weak,” he added. “They don’t have that much support, they are not able to fight against us, but our ANA, which is right here, they don’t have the morale to fight with them, to finish them.”

When the ANA does venture forth from its bases, its leaders’ ambitions do not extend much further than patrolling Highway 1, the ring road that slices through Zabul as it links Afghanistan’s major cities. “Whenever they get attacked on the highway, they never follow the enemy,” Sarjang said. “They don’t want to leave the highway.”

The Afghan army’s unwillingness to get out and fight means that the police in Zabul have to focus on combat operations and can only devote about 20 percent of their energy to traditional crime fighting, Sarjang said. This frustrates the U.S. officers who work with the police.

“The ANA should be out in the foothills beating the bush while the police guard the highway, but for some reason the Afghan government decided to flip-flop it, which just blows my mind,” said Capt. Mike Garrett, commander of Police Mentor Team (PMT) Viper in southern Zabul.

The bottom line, Darling said, is that “the ANP are way more in the fight than the ANA are.”

Not everyone is so dismissive of the ANA’s contribution. U.S. troops at Forward Operating Base Baylough, a small outpost in northern Zabul, speak highly of the dozen or so ANA soldiers stationed at the base.

“The ANA perform pretty well under fire,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Carney, the senior U.S. enlisted soldier on the base. “They hate the Taliban more than we do.” But Carney also described the far more numerous police element that operates from the police station just down the road from the base as “a bunch of good guys.”

Army Lt. Col. James Overbye, the senior U.S. mentor to the ANA in Zabul, took issue with the criticisms voiced by his counterparts who mentor the ANP. He noted that U.S. police mentor teams are only present in four of Zabul’s 11 districts, where the police have been through the focused district development, or FDD, process, in which all the police are pulled out of a district and trained at a base outside Kandahar airfield for two months before being reintroduced to their district.

“Three of those districts are on the highway,” Overbye said. “The focused district development was done that way to get the police in contact with the population centers first, trained up and through the development process, and then once they get through that process they have mentors that are assigned to them, so it’s really focusing them on the population centers.”

Regarding the police mentors’ view that the ANP is carrying a disproportionate amount of the combat load, it was “probably a matter of perspective,” Overbye said. “In their little world they are — they’re going four miles off the highway [to fight]. But if you have a provincial picture … then it probably doesn’t hold true.”

“I spent the last few weeks in the four southern districts where there is no police mentorship,” Overbye said. “[There] the army is the one going out into the villages and going out off the roads. And they’re going out there in conjunction with the police, but the police out there are unmentored, so they’re going there when they can.”

The top Afghan army officer in Zabul, Maj. Gen. Jamaluddin Sayed, commander of the 205th Corps’ 2nd Brigade, also denied that his men were unwilling to fight, and claimed that although his troops “prefer a different kind of mission in Zabul province,” they were actually doing the police’s work for them.

“We are taking security for Highway 1 and the district centers because the ANP guys are not as strong as the ANA guys,” Jamaluddin said through an interpreter. “We are chasing the insurgents to the mountains.”

The ANA is capable of independent operations, but is hobbled by an inability to resupply its forces in the field, Overbye said.

“The Achilles heel is still logistics support for them,” he said. So while the army units in Zabul can “certainly [conduct] company or even up to battalion-level operations … to take the brigade and roll out into the field for more than several days would be challenging for them. But they could do the operational planning for that.”

Their U.S. mentors identified two major factors behind the police’s tactical successes in Zabul. One is the fact that the police can react to new intelligence and roll out on a mission faster than any other coalition force in the province, according to their mentors.

“The police are the most flexible and least restricted units out there,” because they don’t have to go through the deliberate planning and approval process required of the Afghan army or U.S. forces, Darling said. “Usually it takes a week to get a normal ISAF force out of the door. My guys can roll in 10 minutes. Nobody matches that.” ISAF is the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The second advantage that the ANP holds is that it is a locally recruited force, police and coalition officers said. “What I’m trying to get the police to understand is their strengths are the villages,” Darling said. “The police belong in the villages, among the people, talking with them, getting to know them. They’re here forever, so when something doesn’t seem right, the police should be able to be the first ones to pick up on it.”

The attrition rate for police recruits is high. “We’re losing police faster than we’re training them,” Darling said. But Sarjang said that although 400 police had walked away from their positions last year — there is no term of enlistment, so the police can simply quit — by June of this year only 65 had left.

For those who remain, the war is very personal, Darling said. “They know the local [insurgent] mullahs, the local mullahs know them,” he said. “They call each other. They taunt each other during battle, by name. … This is a personal fight. Those who stay are in it to the death, whether it’s their death or the enemy’s.”

But Jamaluddin, the ANA general, seized on the local nature of the police force — all the police in Zabul, with the exception of Sarjang, are recruited in the province, with a disproportionate number hailing from Qalat, the provincial capital — as a weakness, not a strength.

“If we recruit the ANP people from Zabul province, probably they have some relationship with the Taliban,” Jamaluddin said. “Most of the people in Zabul province are Pashtuns. Because they are Pashtuns they will support some of the Taliban.” He suggested hiring Pashtuns from other provinces to man the Zabul police force instead.

However, Jamaluddin, a Tajik who fought with the Northern Alliance prior to the fall of the Taliban, denied that ethnic tensions were behind his concerns. “In Afghanistan we don’t have these kind of problems — ‘He’s a Pashtun, he’s a Tajik,’ ” he said, seemingly oblivious to the bloody civil war fought in 1990s between the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban and the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance.

Sixty-five percent of the troops in his own ANA brigade were Pashtuns, but not from Zabul, Jamaluddin said. But Capt. Andrew Webber, a member of the embedded training team (ETT) for 2nd Brigade’s 1st Kandak (battalion), said that his battalion was 70 percent Tajik, with “a strong showing of Hazaras,” the Shiite ethnic group from central Afghanistan.

“About five percent of the battalion is Pashtun,” Webber said. A second ETT source, who asked not to be named so that he could speak freely, said Webber’s numbers were accurate and that they probably applied across Jamaluddin’s entire brigade.

But what you see in terms of the abilities and effectiveness of the ANA and the ANP depends on where you sit, said the second ETT source. “The [police] mentors’ perspective is based on a close working relationship with ANP elements who they’ve been in the fight with,” he said. “It’s the same with the ANA. The ANA mentors have seen the ANA sustain casualties and know that the ANA are going out and engaging with and defeating the enemy.”

However, the ANA keeps too much of its combat power in and around Qalat, diminishing its ability to project power and have a permanent presence throughout the province, the source said. But the small ANA elements that are stationed at more remote locations are frequently in combat with the Taliban, resulting in casualties on both sides, he said.

Much of the resentment expressed by the police and their U.S. advisers is due to the fact that the coalition and the Afghan government have invested far more time and money on the Afghan army than it has on the police.

The soldiers in Jamaluddin’s brigade have been issued the M16A2 rifle and are also getting the M249 squad automatic weapon and the M240 machine gun — all weapons used by the U.S. military. This fall they’ll receive the up-armored Humvee, Overbye said. The police, in contrast, are still equipped with AK-series assault rifles, PK-series machine guns and unarmored pickup trucks.

Afghan soldiers are also better paid than policemen, on average. Junior ANA soldiers receive the equivalent of about $310 per month, rising to about $413 per month after two years of service, according to Sarjang. The troops also receive additional combat pay and about $5 every day for food. The average policeman receives $172 per month, $310 per month if he has graduated from focused district development and is in a remote district and $207 per month if he’s an FDD graduate serving in Qalat. The police receive $2 every day for food.

Even though U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine states that “the primary frontline COIN force is often the police — not the military,” after toppling the Taliban regime in late 2001 the U.S. prioritized the task of building an Afghan army over creating a professional police force.

Senior Afghan police officers view this as a major blunder. Sarjang said he told U.S. leaders six years ago that “we have to improve the ANP first, because the ANP is more important than the ANA.”

“The ANP, not the ANA, has direct contact with the enemy, because we’re in the villages, in the towns, everywhere,” Sarjang said. “If we had trained the ANP before, we would never have seen as many enemy as there are now.” Even Jamaluddin identified as one of the “many reasons” for the tension between the two forces the fact that “the army started training four years earlier than the ANP.”

As a result of all their resource advantages, ANA soldiers have developed a superiority complex, according to the police and their U.S. mentors. “We killed a lot of Taliban this week, but still the ANA are selfish. They don’t have any respect for the ANP,” Sarjang said.

The army adopts an “arrogant” attitude toward the ANP, said Garrett, the PMT Viper commander, who added that if the police were resourced at the same levels as the army, “that arrogance would disappear very quickly.”

That situation is being rectified, at least as far as U.S. mentoring is concerned, Overbye said. “You’ll often hear people say the ANP is slightly behind where the army is, just because we haven’t spent the time with them yet,” he said. “That time is coming.” With more mentors planned for the ANP, “that’ll boost them up to the same level we’ve got the ANA at,” Overbye said.

Darling seemed to agree. “If you throw enough money, if you throw in mentors, you’re going to see results, and we have seen results,” he said. “The ANP is an effective force — in this province, arguably more effective than the ANA.”

In the meantime, the lack of resources only heightens the ANP mentors’ appreciation for the police. “The police have the desire and the will to fight for their country, but they barely have the money, they fight with limited food, limited water, limited support, and yet they’re out there every single day trying to make their country better,” said Staff Sgt. Milo Wurth, PMT Viper’s senior noncommissioned officer.

“There are some exceptional [police] out there who will fight tooth and nail,” Garrett said. “There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of fear in these guys. Damn, I’m going to miss them after I’m gone.”