Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Ineffective, Unprofessional, and Corrupt: The Afghan National Police Challenge

Ineffective, Unprofessional, and Corrupt: The Afghan National Police Challenge

“Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course” were the stirring words President Obama used to unveil his new Afghanistan strategy on March 27. The sentiment should have been much welcomed, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere abroad. Eight years after the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom, its own intelligence agencies have concluded that Afghanistan is caught in a downward spiral, confronted by warlordism, a weak and corrupt government, a resurgent Taliban, and a narco-dominated economy. Afghanistan’s last ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index was a derisory 174th out of roughly 180 countries.

Overlooked but at the heart of both the problem and the solution is policing. Security is essential for socioeconomic development, while upholding the rule of law and contributing to the provision of justice engenders faith and legitimacy in national government institutions. It was therefore positive that Obama stressed the centrality of the Afghan National Police (ANP) to the war effort. Nonetheless, Obama’s “new” strategy, far from going forward, is actually looking back.

State of Play

America’s involvement with the ANP began in 2003. To date roughly $6.2 billion has been provided to train and equip it, but it is still widely perceived that the police are, in the words of U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, “the weak link in the security chain,” lagging years behind development of the Afghan National Army. Only scant knowledge of the ANP is necessary to cause deep pessimism.

It is not that efforts to improve the ANP’s performance have had no success. Infrastructure has been built and equipment provided. Police academies have been established in Kabul and in all of Afghanistan’s main provinces. Between 2003 and 2008 roughly 149,000 trainees have passed through their doors. Reports suggest that there is no shortage of fresh recruits.[1] Meanwhile, the Focused District Development (FDD) program from Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan (CSTC-A) has gained widespread praise. So far more than 3,000 Afghans have graduated from the program, which offers eight weeks of training in a variety of police and counterinsurgency areas. Measures to tackle endemic corruption within the police include having registered 76,000 police and issued 47,000 identification cards. Furthermore, an electronic system to pay police salaries has been initiated in all 34 provinces to combat pay-centered corruption.

Achievements such as these should not be taken lightly considering Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history, which destroyed almost all of the progress made towards a national civilian police force during the 1970s. But success should also not be overstated. Pay-centered anticorruption methods founder against an inadequate banking infrastructure. Likewise, by early 2009, a mere 52 of 365 police districts had successfully completed the FDD program. CSTC-A has warned that its training camps are operating at maximum capacity. Lastly, how many boots are actually “on the ground”? Definite figures are impossible to ascertain and estimates vary widely, from as low as 35,000 by the UN to claims by Afghan government officials that the ANP have attained 99 percent strength.[2]

Wrangling over the percentage of police trained or recruited reveals that the international discourse surrounding efforts to improve the ANP are confined by numbers. This approach is a poor way to measure the success or failure of attempts to build an effective police force. Confusing outputs with outcomes tells observers little of the quality of the police or their effectiveness in tackling everyday crime. Masked from view are the many problems that continue to plague the ANP.

Inherent Failings

The efforts of many honest and effective Afghan police should not be ignored, and one cannot overstate the bravery of those who choose policing in an environment of acute and ever-present danger. Nevertheless, the ANP as a collective is riddled with problems starting with illiteracy, levels of which are currently estimated at 65 percent of the male population. This fundamental problem restricts the quality of recruits, the effectiveness of police training, and even their ability to write reports and record critical information.

It is little wonder, then, that the ANP is regularly deemed ineffective, a problem exacerbated by its members’ role as quasi-soldiers rather than civilian police officers. The ANP has the immense challenge of switching between policing duties and supporting full-scale military operations with very little notice. Conversely, too much police time is wasted on non-core duties such as road construction and maintenance. This may be why the public complains that the police are lazy and remiss in their duties, with calls to the emergency 119 number often going unanswered. This conduct is undoubtedly compounded by narcotic use; British officials estimate that 60 percent of the ANP in Helmand use drugs.

More serious than charges of unprofessionalism, however, the ANP are never far from accusations that they habitually abuse their power, using torture as a means of evidence collection and shaking down houses “like criminals” during home searches.[3] In September, a reporter from the Washington Independent watched as Afghan police in Paktia province attempted to exploit a joint U.S.-Afghan raid on a suspected Taliban safehouse in order to rob the inhabitants.[4]

Despite efforts to tackle corruption, the ANP is shot through with graft, a problem some American officers have argued is “a bigger threat to the stability of the Afghan government than the Taliban.”[5] Bribes determine everything from recruitment to assignments and promotion prospects. Payoffs are extracted not only from criminals, drug runners and Taliban, but also the general public, shopkeepers, and even the victims of crime whom the ANP are meant to be protecting.[6] Corruption is such a lucrative growth industry on Afghanistan’s highways that reports suggest police posts along major transport routes such as Balu Beluk can be sold for $200,000. Newspaper headlines that suggest Afghan truckers seek a return of the Taliban to end corruption may be media hyperbole,[7] but a 2007 strike over increased taxes and roadside extortion by those transporting goods along Afghanistan’s highways is indicative of deeply troubling developments. Little wonder that widespread sentiment views the ANP as thieves in official uniform. In some instances this is literally the case; a doctor from Ghazni related an incident on the Ghazni Highway during which a bus was robbed by men dressed as Taliban. Subsequently it was discovered that “it was the entire police of that area.” Such corruption is detrimental to the reputation not only of the police, but of the central government more broadly, as the police are one of the most public faces of the state.

Consequently, in June 2008, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study reported that not one Afghan police unit out of 433 was assessed by the Department Defense as fully capable of performing its mission; over three-fourths of them were assessed at the lowest capability rating.[8] Clearly a new approach to the ANP is long overdue.

Obama’s New Strategy or Non-Strategy?

Given the new course charted by Obama’s administration on many U.S. foreign policy issues, recent expectations that strategy in Afghanistan would be fundamentally reoriented can be forgiven. Afghanistan’s rise up the policy agenda is undeniably welcome after so long in the shadow of the Bush administration’s Iraq distraction. In the 2008 fiscal year, for example, despite Afghanistan’s continuing downward spiral, the U.S. financed its Iraq operations to the tune of $10.9 billion per month, compared to only $2.7 billion a month for Afghanistan. The refocusing of political, military, and diplomatic energy towards the country will likely stem the downward trend and regain lost initiative. Likewise the ANP are receiving greater attention. “This is a sector of Afghan security forces” said President Karzai in June last year, “which received attention quite late.”[9] Added determination and focus, however, does not a new strategy make. The main contours of Obama’s strategy for the Afghan police are depressingly similar to those of his predecessor.

Most superficially, this is expressed in Obama’s announced plan to build an Afghan police force of 82,000. This represents no increase in the overall number of police. This benchmark was authorized by the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board back in April 2007 and, if Afghan officials are correct, is already close to being met. Likewise, Obama’s announcement was disingenuous in claiming that efforts will be accelerated to build this force by 2011. Expressing puzzlement at the announcement, Afghan Defense Minister General Abdul Wardak argued that in both numbers and pacing, the strategy represented nothing new.

General Wardak need not have worried; on April 19, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar announced that the Board had agreed upon an interim increase of the ANP by 15,000 ahead of the country’s August presidential election. The results of a Board study to increase the force still further are expected this month. “Our initial calculation is that it should be at least double the size of the current police force,” Atmar said. Such increases match with the general thrust of Obama’s policy. Additional expansion of Afghan forces, he argued, “may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.” At a more fundamental level than sheer numbers, therefore, the focus on specific figures in Obama’s announcement demonstrates a continued US obsession with ANP capacity-building rather the more complex job of reform.

This flawed approach was recently criticized by the Police Mentoring Team leader for Arghandab, who stated that the key “is having a detailed, well thought-out plan, not just throwing numbers at the problem.” Beyond the figures, however, U.S. policy remains focused on resourcing and training the ANP, with the imminent deployment of 4,000 extra trainers. But has this been given sufficient thought? ANP training is poor, the bare minimum believed necessary. Patrolmen receive just eight weeks training. Meanwhile, police officers higher up the rank structure have had their training reduced from one year to just 4-1/2 months. Under the Bush administration, police effectiveness and professionalism were sacrificed for the sake of speed. There is little to indicate any change under the new strategy. According to Admiral Mike Mullen, the 4,000 trainers are “absolutely at the heart of being able to do that [increase the army and police] as rapidly as possible.”[10] Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., is likely to be disappointed; when asked recently if the ANP’s training program required starting again from scratch, the ambassador’s reply was a resounding “yes.”[11]

Closely related to the issue of training, the curriculum of which has been criticized as overly militaristic, is the question of what precisely the police are being trained for. As mentioned above, the ANP are little more than a supplement to the ANA, ill-equipped and poorly trained for the paramilitary role they have been assigned. It is clear that the new Af-Pak strategy fails to reorient the utility of the police. In Obama’s strategic plan, the ANP are often subsumed within the term “Afghan National Security Forces,” a semantic maneuver blurring the distinction between the police and military. Coupled with the strategy’s objective to develop these forces so that they can “lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight,” it is apparent that Obama intends to continue his predecessor’s use of the ANP as a paramilitary force.

In short, the new strategy continues the U.S. approach of concentrating on the recruitment, training and equipping of a police force that is misused to fight the growing insurgency confronting Afghanistan, rather than to stabilize and secure Afghan society.

A Comprehensive Strategy for the ANP

Obama introduced the Af-Pak policy as “a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But in terms of the ANP, there exists a yawning gap between official rhetoric and government policy. Capacity-building should not be equated with police reform; it is the latter which is so desperately needed in Afghanistan. Although reform would entail a myriad of different issues and necessary policies, a comprehensive plan for the ANP would at a minimum need to consider three essential factors.

The Politics of Police Reform. Long-term institutional change is a fundamental requirement of ANP reform. At a basic level this includes anticorruption measures, accountability mechanisms and so forth. But discussion of such changes is merely academic within the dysfunctional institutional environment of the Ministry of Interior. The centrality of the Ministry reform in efforts to build an effective, professional ANP has long been identified. Yet for too long the issue of institutional reform has not been high enough on the agenda of the U.S. and other international actors. A recent GAO report stressed that the Ministry continues to suffer from “numerous organizational deficiencies.” Limited control over provincial police structures, with some police forces acting as militias whose allegiance belongs to local strongmen, means centrally directed reforms often fail to filter down to the local level. However, this implies that reforms have been readily forthcoming—but low institutional capacity afflicts the Ministry at every level. The International Crisis Group recently concluded that “operational reform has often preceded the formation of policies that make up the foundation of policing.”[12] Belated measures to address Ministry weaknesses have been forthcoming—for example, efforts to mentor senior ministry officials—but problems remain, in particular, levels of corruption and nepotism which infect the ministry from top to bottom.

Being Policemen, Not Soldiers. No amount of reform, institutional or otherwise, will make a difference to the Afghan population if the police are tasked as cannon fodder for the insurgency. President Obama was right when he said that the “campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.” Policing is one of the most effective counterinsurgency tools, but not in the way currently conceptualized by the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. The potential contribution of the ANP to counterinsurgency efforts stems less from tasking them as military auxiliaries, and more with their law enforcement and policing duties. Building connections to the communities they are supposed to serve would boost intelligence capabilities. Moreover, crime has undermined public support for, and the legitimacy of, the central state. As one former Afghan general noted, “the police are the reflection mirror of the government, in which the general public judges the entire system.” The Taliban know this, and herein lies the reason for the wave of insurgent attacks that have claimed the lives of 1,500 police last year. The ANP therefore need to be tasked with policing duties first and foremost, securing the public against general criminality and lawlessness. Indeed a recent BBC/ Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) poll found that only 11 percent of Afghans rated the Taliban as their most serious problem. Afghan police reform must be driven by the needs and desires of the Afghan population, not the dictates of U.S. foreign policy; intuitive though this may be, it nevertheless bears repeating.

Strengthening the Judicial Counterpar. Lastly, reform of the ANP must occur concurrently with reform of the criminal justice sector. The link between police effectiveness and the consistent application of the rule of law is a frequently repeated lesson from previous reform missions. This academic consensus is so great that security sector reform is increasingly eclipsed by a new acronym, SJSR, standing for Security and Justice Sector Reform.[13] And for good reasons: public safety is provided by a complex and interrelated system of agencies, from prosecutors and judges to prisons and rehabilitation officers. The police cannot adequately maintain law and order until a society’s justice system is reestablished. Reform of one without the other is doomed to fail.

Following the intervention in Afghanistan, a myopic focus on expanding police capacity soon overwhelmed the justice system, which has suffered from a lack of resources, commitment and reform even more than the police. As late as last year, 40 percent of judges lacked practical induction, and 80 percent of provincial prosecutors had no university qualifications. The formal system remains painfully slow and inefficient. Many arrested by the police never go to trial. In Gereshk Helmand province, for example, only two to three criminal cases are lodged with the court every month. Few of the accused are ever convicted. Even then, endemic corruption cripples the system’s ability to provide a modicum of justice. In a recent article for the RUSI in London, Frank Ledwidge, former Justice Adviser to the UK PRT in Helmand, highlighted the example of a state court that sentenced a murderer to only six months in prison after the murderer’s family greased the judge’s palm.

Again, there are some encouraging signs. Under the FDD program, judges and prosecutors within reform districts receive targeted training. Rule of law infrastructure has been built. But such capacity-building measures must be complimented by institutional change. At the recent trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S., Obama made reference to justice sector reform. But there was little of note in Obama’s new strategy. Instead of linking the police with the criminal justice system, the police were tied rhetorically to the military. A robust, coordinated approach to the justice sector interlinked with police reform must be a top administration priority.

Central to this effort must be discussion of the elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s rule of law. Many Afghans live at a geographic and cultural distance from urban-based formal justice systems. The UNDP’s Afghanistan Human Development Report 2007 is fronted by an image meant to signify that 80 percent of disputes are solved by local, informal systems of justice. In Helmand, progress has been made supporting this informal justice architecture, deeply rooted in the culture and history of Afghanistan. Prisoner review shuras, for example, are local Afghan-led mechanisms which help prevent excessive prisoner detention, and ensure the release of prisoners with no evidence against them. Established in Musa Qala, Sangin and Nad-e-Ali so far, they are also integrated into the formal justice sector, with serious cases transferred to Lashkar Gah and the central rule of law system. This system could provide a useful model of reform for the rule of law sector in Afghanistan more broadly.


Although nascent, efforts in the Helmand rule of law sector are the kind of radical thinking needed to build and reform the Afghan National Police. This has not been the case for American efforts. Even a focus on accepted and well-tested police reform measures, including institutional restructuring or strong accountability mechanisms, could have justified the description of Obama’s strategy as “new.” In many ways Obama’s first 100 days in office s shifted the political terrain of American and global politics; all the more disappointing, then, that his approach towards the ANP draws so heavily on the policies which his predecessor implemented—policies that have demonstrably failed. An effective, professional police force is crucial for the stability of Afghanistan. The space for meaningful reform to achieve this, however, is fast diminishing; the recent BBC/RUSI poll suggests support for the Karzai government is waning, currently just reaching 55 percent compared to 78 percent in 2006. To regain the initiative, Obama must take his own advice: it is “going forward” rather than “blindly staying the course” that will bring about the required change in the Afghan National Police.

Read Reforming the Afghan National Police – Executive Summary.

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  1. ^ “Ranks of civilian police mentors doubled to speed training of Afghan police,” The Canadian Press , 4 December 2008
  2. ^ “Afghan Defense Chief Unhappy with Obama Plan,” Council on Foreign Relations Interview, 16 April 2009,
  3. ^ “U.S. Troops Face a Tangle of Goals in Afghanistan,” Washington Post , 8 March 2009
  4. ^ “Afghan Police Corruption Stymies U.S. Weapons Hunt,” Washington Independent , 16 September 2008
  5. ^ “Corruption Undercuts Hopes for Afghan Police,” New York Times , 8 April 2009
  6. ^ Interview conducted by RUSI with a former Afghan police colonel and professor at the Kabul Police Academy.
  7. ^ “Bring Back Taliban to End Police Corruption,” The Independent , 10 May 2007
  8. ^ “Afghanistan Security: U.S. Efforts to Develop Capable Afghan Police Forces Face Challenges and Need a Coordinated, Detailed Plan to Help Ensure Accountability,”
  9. ^ “Afghanistan’s Future threatened by Poor Police,” Bloomberg , 10 June 2008
  10. ^ “Trainers Critical to Obama’s New Afghan-Pakistan Plan, Mullen Says,” DefenseLink , March 27, 2009.
  11. ^ “Afghanistan, Pakistan Ambassadors Criticize Obama Strategy,” Washington Independen t, April 10, 2009
  12. ^ International Crisis Group, “Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy,” December 2008, p. 7.
  13. ^ DFID Evaluation Working Paper 23, “Security and Justice Sector Reform Programming in Africa,” 2007.