U.S. troops rely on Afghan police while trying to train them

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — A group of Georgia National Guard soldiers joined Lt. Col. Mir Salam Adamkhil, a Kabul precinct chief, in his office Thursday. At first the conversation centered on small talk, mostly about the precinct chief's teenage sons, as the men sipped on chai.

Then Staff Sgt. Josh Heaton opened a metal folder and flipped through a sheaf of paper marked "Secret."

"Ask him if he knows who this guy is?" Heaton told his interpreter as he underlined the name of an insurgent planning attacks on U.S. troops.

The precinct chief was very familiar with the name, and his expression changed: "If I see him, I will arrest him."

This was not the first time the group had approached the local police looking for intelligence. In fact, several soldiers from the 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard said they routinely rely on the police for ground intelligence on looming attacks.

"We get more intel (from the Afghan police) than our own end," said Capt. Kevin Nicklay of Statesboro, Ga. "Right now, they're looking for some suicide bombers. They'll find at least one of them."

This dynamic presents a wrinkle in the Obama administration's war strategy: As they prod the Afghan police to root out corruption in their ranks, U.S. soldiers still must charm police commanders into providing intelligence on Taliban elements in their neighborhoods.

The U.S. forces simply don't have the personal reach into Afghan communities to dig up their own intelligence.

The soldiers from a Georgia Guard field artillery unit have worked with the police in Kabul since they arrived in March; they haven't once fired an artillery round in Afghanistan. On Thursday, they trained a special operations police unit in north Kabul on searching a vehicle, first aid, and cleaning their AK-47s.

The subjects of the training were notable. For a police unit in the United States, these subjects are usually introductory-level topics.

When a regional police commander arrived at the precinct midday, he didn't arrive with a smile on his face.

"They don't know how to hold their weapons, they don't know how to stand and salute, they don't know how to be police," Col. Abdul Rahman Rhahimi said of his young policemen.

Afghan police recruits begin their training through a police academy run by DynCorp, a government contractor based in Falls Church, Va.

The reputation of the Afghan National Police couldn't be much worse. To many in Afghanistan, their officers seem better versed in extorting bribes at checkpoints than they are at filing police reports.

Rhahimi, a garrulous disciplinarian, turned even more irascible when asked about corruption in his ranks.

"I'd like to like to lock (corrupt police officers) in a room in light it on fire," he said.

No doubt the feeling is shared by U.S. commanders, but any corruption that American ground troops witness in the police can only be reported to the Afghan authorities. U.S. troops cannot take any actions beyond telling their bosses.

On top of the constant allegations of corruption, many of the police in Kabul, Afghanistan's largest city, hardly strike the kind of fear as the New York Police Department. One police officer who trained with the Georgia Guard team appeared to be well into his 40s and under five feet tall.

If anyone fears the Afghan police, it's usually because of who they're really working for.

"You've always got to be vigilant, because you never know," said Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney, the commander of an Internal Security Force mentoring bureau.

The Georgia Guard sent a soldier home last fall after he was shot by an Afghan police officer, apparently a Taliban infiltrator.

Dudney's answer to stopping police infiltration: "It goes back to that close, personal relationship you have with that provincial police chief or the Afghan leaders you're working with on a day-to-day basis."

Before the U.S. soldiers left, Nicklay and Rhahimi sat down for tea. Again the subject turned to intelligence. Nicklay's soldiers waited outside for more than an hour as the two went over details of potential attacks.

"That's where you're going to get of your information on where the Taliban are, or where the people are that have stolen the police uniforms who are going to try to infiltrate the ranks," Dudney said.

(Day reports for The Telegraph of Macon, Ga.)

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