KOLK, Afghanistan — When the improvised bomb exploded in a mud-walled compound about 300 yards from a new traffic checkpoint, the six Afghan police officers at the post just looked at one another.
Another violent day on Afghanistan's Highway 1 had begun.
"Tell them to send three guys and go check it out to make sure no locals were hurt," U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Hans Beutel told a translator. "Tell them not to get too close, but go take a look."
Then Beutel, 23, and the rest of his team from the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division drove off to a half-finished nearby base to grab a quick lunch. When they returned to the police checkpoint in the early afternoon, they found it deserted.
It was another lost afternoon in the frustrating effort to train Afghanistan's ill-paid police, who have a well-deserved reputation for stealing and extorting bribes. Staff Sgt. Tony Locklear, a 44-year-old from Robeson County, N.C., who'd spent the morning coaching the officers on running a checkpoint, cursed when he saw they were gone.
Training the Afghan national and local police, who function as a paramilitary force, is essential to the Obama administration's efforts to find an exit from Afghanistan. If the Afghan government is ever to take control of the country, it will need a less corrupt and more professional police force that can stand on its own.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander, has called for boosting the police force to 160,000 from its strength of 84,000; McChrystal also wants the Afghan army to double in size, to 240,000.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, the police appear to be years away from functioning independently. American trainers say they must tell the Afghans repeatedly to do the simplest things, such as separating passengers they've searched from ones they haven't when they stop a vehicle.
The police suffer from a range of problems besides corruption, their U.S. trainers say. Illiteracy is the norm — Beutel thinks that only about 10 percent of the police officers he works with can read — and drug abuse is common.
Fuel is often in short supply. The central police headquarters in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, provides the district police with whom Beutel works one tank of diesel fuel a month per truck. That often means that when Beutel wants to mount a mission, he has to carry American fuel in jerrycans for the Afghan vehicles, a double frustration since the whole idea is to develop a force that can work without U.S. help.
Still, the police, manning vulnerable traffic checkpoints, routinely suffer casualties at a rate two or three times that of any other force on the coalition side, and American trainers say that many are fearless under fire.
This area along Highway 1 about 25 miles west of Kandahar illustrates the challenge the police face. Down a dusty side road about 700 yards from the police checkpoint, two white flags flapped in the breeze one recent morning.
"A few days after we started showing up here, the Taliban put up those flags," said Beutel, of Huntersville, N.C. "Pretty much everything past that is theirs."
That means the Taliban control a series of small grape-farming villages on a strip of land a mile or two wide between the highway — the main east-west artery — and the Arghandab River, a key waterway in Kandahar province.
After nearly two dozen assaults into Taliban turf in the past three months, Beutel and the soldiers he commands describe a nightmarish place in which the Taliban control the villages even in daylight, and the roads and paths are larded with bombs and mines.
Explosive booby traps are set into walls, and the insurgents have dug elaborate fighting positions with "spider holes," bunkers, camouflaged trenches and even tunnels that are reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
Beutel said he'd like to clean it all out and set up checkpoints outside the villages to prevent the Taliban from slipping back. That, however, would take perhaps twice as many police and a savvier police district commander who could persuade the village elders to build a working relationship with the police.
For now, it's all the local police and Afghan National Army units can do to try to keep the highway safe along the 12-mile stretch that Beutel's police are supposed to patrol.
"The ANA should clear (the villages) and the police should hold them, but for now they're both kind of in survival mode," Beutel said. "They have a foothold on Highway 1 and that's about it."
Beutel's soldiers work with the officers on a range of skills, from how to patrol to how to operate a checkpoint and even how to act professionally.
He talks with the police battalion commander, Bismullah Jan, almost daily, the young American officer sitting with the grizzled policeman on a rug in the district police offices on the Canadian military base where Beutel's troops live. They sip tea and discuss what went well that day and what could improve, plan missions and discuss what supplies the police need.
Before the police disappeared from the checkpoint, Beutel had been feeling good about the last 25 days. His soldiers had worked with the police to beef up several permanent checkpoints along the district's stretch of highway. The plan had been to monitor who was entering and leaving villages and to keep the Taliban away from the highway.
The operation had been a success: The number of bombs planted on the road had fallen by 70 to 80 percent, Beutel said. The mission couldn't last indefinitely, however, because it required too many police officers, and its last day would underscore the security challenges.
The explosion at the nearby compound was only the first of a series of incidents. Beutel thought an insurgent might have set off a bomb accidentally or possibly tried to lure his soldiers into an ambush.
Next, a U.S. Army truck filled with soldiers from another unit hit a mine, which blew off one wheel.
Then the attack that many had been expecting came just after Beutel's paratroopers drove off for lunch at the partly constructed U.S. base.
This time, the insurgents struck an Afghan army convoy about 1,000 yards east with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. Beutel's troops, hearing the attack just as they were beginning to eat, jumped in their armored trucks and raced out through the gate.
They tore past the Afghan convoy and took up a position where they had a good line of sight south. Beutel got on the radio with the pilots of two U.S. helicopters overhead. The pilots fired a couple of rockets at yet another taunting white flag south of the highway, near where Beutel told them the insurgents had been seen last, but they didn't flush any.
That didn't surprise Locklear, whose men have found networks of holes and trenches near the villages.
"We've even seen them shoot at helicopters, slide down awhile when the choppers fire rockets at them, then pop up and shoot again," he said.
Later, Beutel went to find the police battalion commander for their usual evening meeting, but an assistant said Jan was off on business. A police commander named Farouk, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, walked up. U.S. paratroopers had spoken admiringly about him.
Farouk said he'd just chased a dozen Taliban away from a broken-down truck on the highway. He thought he knew where they were hiding. "Let's go kill them!" he said.
"He comes out with ideas. He'll come to us with plans for operations," Beutel said. "He's a real go-getter."
Then Hamayun, the battalion's gaunt, bearded criminal investigations officer, approached. Beutel asked through a translator why the six policemen had abandoned the checkpoint.
"Did the Taliban shoot at them?" he asked.
Hamayun drew himself up.
"We wouldn't put on these uniforms if we were afraid of the Taliban," he said. "They left because the Americans never came back."
"It sounds like they just took off because they were lazy," Beutel said, walking back to the concrete bunker where he sleeps. "If we're not around, they think it's not really like an operation."
Beutel remained philosophical, however. Most of the police are brave, and some are, if anything, too eager, he said. Others aren't much good. Regardless, making the police into a force that can counter the Taliban is going to be a long haul, and a single afternoon doesn't mean much.
"Somehow we've got to empower the locals to trust" the police, Beutel said. "Right now, though, the guys with legitimacy in those villages are the ones who can bust through your door with an AK-47."
(Price reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's national security coverage at Nukes & Spooks.