How to build a police department from scratch.

American MP's in Kandahar.
Oct. 20 2010 10:17 AM

Police Academy

How to build a police department from scratch.

Police Chief Ali Ahmad Hakimi. Click image to expand.
Ali Ahmad Hakimi, the 23-year-old chief of District 10

For American military police, mentorship means many things. It means watching as the Afghan National Police conduct car searches at checkpoints around the city. It means training them in urban tactics such as forming a security ring and room clearing. It means teaching them to establish intelligence networks. But all that is worthless without a basic organizational infrastructure. So far, the ANP doesn't have one. Concepts like chain of command, which most police back home take for granted, here must be taught.

When not with the 372nd, Sgt. 1st Class Lisa Morgan helps manage another great American company: Wal-Mart. As an asset-protection coordinator in Roanoke, Va., it's her job to make sure everything is in its right place—a skill that translates well to Police Substation 10. In the Afghan police chief's office on a Friday afternoon, Morgan produces a packet of printouts that shows the police station's hierarchy, like a mafia family tree on a cop show. Many of the spaces are blank. The goal today is to figure out who exactly works here and what they do.

At the top is Ali Ahmad Hakimi, the 23-year-old chief of District 10. While Morgan rifles through papers, Hakimi sits behind his desk, fielding calls on a cell phone. The station doesn't have landlines, so Hakimi serves as a one-man 911 dispatcher. When he goes out on patrols, he gives out his personal number. Today, the calls are personal. Twenty days ago, the chief of District 8 was injured in an IED blast. He died today. Hakimi is spreading the news. "The really sad thing is if they don't change their operations, the same thing's gonna happen to him," says Morgan. Like many ANP officers, Hakimi didn't make it past elementary school, and like almost all of them, he doesn't speak English. The plaque on his desk displaying his title in English and Pashto is upside down.

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Under Hakimi is the executive officer, Said Abdul Shah, who says he's 30 but looks 45. The previous week, one of Shah's men came to Morgan complaining that Shah had hit him and asking to be transferred to another police station. Morgan encouraged the man to resolve the issue internally, through his chain of command. The two men are brothers-in-law, and Shah dismissed the incident as "a family problem."

Below Shah, things get complicated. He's supposed to have officers for investigation, narcotics, intelligence, terrorism, and "control." But none of those spots has been filled yet—at least not according to the official roster. Other officers have titles, but only temporarily. And in some cases, the titles are meaningless.

"What do you do?" Morgan recalls asking one ANP.

"I'm a control officer."

"Yeah, but what do you do?"

"I control things."

"What do you control?" The answer, according to Morgan, was basically, "I don't know."

"I'm getting frustrated," says Morgan. There are two policemen named Nazar Mohammed. "Y'all need to change your names around," says Morgan. "Too many of you have the same names."

In the next room, MPs are taking headshots and fingerprints of ANPs and scanning their retinas with a device called a HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment). It's the same procedure they conduct at traffic checkpoints, for the purpose of creating a nationwide ID database. Every time the MPs think they're done, more Afghan policemen come through the door. "This is what happens," says Cpl. David Harris. "We think we have 95 percent of them, but other guys keep showing up. Where the hell are they coming from?"

The ANPs hand over their weapons for inspection. The MPs write down the serial numbers and check them against a master list. Even if the lists don't match, at least they know where the weapons are. (It doesn't always work.) One ANP clears his gun's chamber by pulling the trigger, then hands it over. Weaver explains to him that it's safer to check the chamber visually instead of pulling the trigger. The policeman taps his badge, which says he successfully completed the ANP training course, and walks away.

Most members of the ANP don't even go through the academy. Capt. Fred Wasser estimates that about four of 10 ANPs have completed the course. That's just how the system works: You get your badge and gun before you go through training. Applicants undergo a brief background check—someone already on the force has to vouch for you—and they're in.

Many ANPs therefore don't know Policing 101. The previous night, the MPs were supervising a checkpoint outside a police station when gunshots went off a block away. The ANPs piled into a pickup truck and tore off down the street. No body armor, no seat belts—just an open truck with guns sticking out every which way. "Do they believe it's in the hands of Allah, or are they lazy?" Morgan asked our translator. "They're lazy," he said. It turned out the shots had been fired by another group of ANPs who had caught two men trying to steal a motorcycle. Instead of shooting the thieves, the ANPs had hit a nearby fuel tank, which started leaking.

The ANP is too reactive, says Wasser: They don't go out until something bad happens. "Back home, I drive past a manhole cover that's off, I recognize that's a hazard, I don't just drive by," says Wasser. "I call it in." He thinks the ANP needs to get better at preventing problems instead of just cleaning them up. "We're really not seeing any great bounds or leaps yet," he says. "But the ANPs really want to learn, and that's a great step."

Click to view a slide show.

No matter how much training the ANP gets, it won't become the NYPD. At least not without changing its culture. For example, many of the ANPs take bribes (although they're careful not to take any in front of the Americans). It doesn't help that the base salary for a new police officer is $165 a month. That's a lot more than the average Afghan worker makes—about $400 a year—but still not enough to comfortably support a family. "Which is more honorable," one ANP asked Harris, "not taking a bribe, or not being able to provide for my family?"

Other cultural norms get in the way, too. Police, like a lot of Afghan men, smoke hashish. My first night at Police Substation 5, two MPs led me to a guard tower that reeked of cannabis. When I asked one glassy-eyed ANP whether he worried about the Taliban infiltrating their ranks, he told me they already had and were waiting to attack. "He is crazy," said our interpreter. "Hashish." The same ANP was injured later that week by a grenade lobbed into a guard tower.

The coalition's goal is to make the ANP self-sufficient. But when you add up all the problems—the drugs, the illiteracy, the corruption, the cavalier attitude toward safety, the lax attitude toward work, the lack of resources and equipment, the violence—the sum total strains optimism. Especially when you consider what happens when the coalition leaves. "I don't know," says Wasser. "I see some good things, some brave leaders. But I have questions about their ability to coordinate and be successful" without outside guidance.

The strategy seems to be threefold: Keep training police. Improve societal problems, like poverty and lack of development, that make policing more difficult. And be realistic as to what's achievable.

The ANP is not going to meet Western standards right away, one Canadian police adviser explained to me. But they can shoot for an "Afghan standard." For example, North American police departments have enough weapons that when an officer turns in an old one, he gets a new one. Here, they don't. An American police station has enough gas that officers can go on constant patrol. Here, they can't. "We don't have a septic tank that overflows in Canada behind my police station," she says. Police Substation 5 does. She corrected me when I suggested the "Afghan standard" might be a euphemism for a "lower standard." "We're not trying to impose our own views onto them," she says. "We want to take what's working at one station and bring it to another."

The question is whether the "Afghan standard" ever gets in the way of good policing. Take Ramadan. Americans need to be sensitive to religion, says Wasser. "I know how I'd feel if someone came and walked all over my Christmas celebration." But they also need to enforce the law. Just as Christian police officers have to respond to 911 calls on Sundays, the ANP has to work during Ramadan. They just need to understand that their responsibility to the law is equal to their responsibility to their beliefs, says Wasser. So far, that's been a tough sell. "The philosophies and cultures are too different." How will that change? "Slowly," he says. "Slowly."

That's not to say the ANP hasn't made some gains. It's just hard to find concrete evidence of it. The number of ANP officers enrolled surged past 68,000 in 2009, according to one report. But according to another, only 18 percent of the Afghans the ANP has trained are still with the force. The number of coalition-supported police stations in the city of Kandahar has gone from zero to 17 since 2001. But targeted assassinations have spiked, too. It's possible that a higher crime rate is a good thing: It could mean more people are reporting crimes instead of keeping the information to themselves. But there's no way of knowing. The numbers are opaque. Progress is the opposite of the classic definition of pornography: Even if you see it, you might not know it.

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An MP stands guard near a construction site in Kandahar. Click image to expand.
An MP stands guard near a construction site in Kandahar

First Platoon is convoying down a road at the edge of the city, looking for a construction site. Of course, everything looks like a construction site. Buildings on both sides of the road are either half-built or half-crumbling. Every house seems to have its own pile of stones and dirt outside.

Our driver, Spc. Eric Shank, seems to be aiming for the potholes rather than dodging them. Lt. Jason Walter, who's navigating, is getting annoyed.

"Don't get us stuck," says Walter. The truck hits a divot but keeps moving. "You're lucky," says Walter.

"I'm not lucky," says Shank. "I'm fucking Dale Earnhardt. What are those flags on the mountain?"

"They're flags on a mountain," says Walter. 

"Yeah, but what do they mean?" 

"They mean, Shank, pay attention to the road."

We finally spot a small road leading off into the hills. The trucks barely fit. "I hate these tiny-ass roads," says Walter. "We're going to the heart of where the Taliban is. This is where all those firefights and shit happen."

"Hey, you ever see that movie Wrong Turn?" Shank asks me. "That's what's about to happen."

Shank looks up the hillside. "Man, they've got caves, they've got everything up in this," he says. "It's like West Virginia without the trees." We pass a crowd of children staring at the trucks. Shank starts singing, "All the little children of the wooooorrld …

"I don't understand why people don't get up in the morning and say, 'I'm tired of sitting in this shithole,' " Shank says.

"Try not to hit that goat," says Walter.

We arrive at the site. Two civil affairs officers—military men who oversee development projects under the Commander's Emergency Response Program—hop out of the trucks. They're here to see how construction is going on the new American-financed road. The goal is to connect this neighborhood with a nearby bazaar so farmers can sell their crops more easily.

The civil affairs guys approach four Afghan men sitting in the shade of a parked truck. They're taking the day off. "Are they happy to have the road?" asks David J. Glass, a Navy civil affairs officer, through an interpreter.

"The drivers are happy," says one of the men. "Other people, I don't know."

"As long as someone is happy," says Glass.

"Are you happy?" asks the man. 

"I'll be happy when it's done," says Glass. 

They find another man moving dirt with an excavator. "Can you ask him how wide the road is going to be?" Glass asks the interpreter. He doesn't know. "How long are you gonna work today?" From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. "Where's your supervisor?" He's at the bazaar, he'll be back later. "Do you know if they have grading and leveling equipment coming in?" There should be today. It's unclear if the man behind the excavator knows anything or is simply trying to give answers that will make the American man happy. It's the fog of war, civilian edition.

"I was expecting to see more than I saw," says Glass, as we walk away.

"Well, that was a waste of three hours," says Walter. "It was a sightseeing tour," says Sgt. 1st Class Joe Baird. "See, there's a hotel over there." He points to a dilapidated house across the road. We get back to the truck. "See any bears?" asks Shank. "That would be pretty cool to see bears in Afghanistan."

See a slide show  of U.S. military police in Kandahar.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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