Friction among Afghans looms as challenge in south

Friday, July 23, 2010
Afghan police and soldiers with the 3rd Platoon, Alpha Battery, 82nd Airborne Division patrol Wednesday in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Determined not to repeat the missteps of the operation in neighboring Marjah six months ago, when Afghan National Civil Order Police units were thrown together and rushed into the fight with little experience working with their colleagues, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are moving more deliberately in Kandahar, the biggest southern city and the Taliban's former headquarters. (Allauddin Khan ~ Associated Press)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Abdul Hadi, a police commander in Kandahar city, is a burly, bearded man who speaks quickly and bluntly. And he didn't mince words during a meeting with a young U.S. Army officer overseeing an infusion of elite Afghan security forces in his district.

"Most of the people here, they wear turbans, but they are not Talib," Hadi said, using the singular for Taliban. "But they're being searched like they are Talibs."

Hadi's remarks point to a dilemma for U.S. forces. Ordinary Afghan police are widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. But a U.S. plan to have the better trained Afghan National Civil Order Police, or ANCOP, take the lead in curbing violence in this Taliban stronghold of half a million people could risk alienating the ultimate prize -- the residents.

Local police chiefs like Hadi resent the reinforcements, saying they're outsiders who don't know the people or the neighborhoods. And the residents are angry over searches and checkpoints that make them feel as though they're the enemy.

Determined not to repeat the missteps of the operation in Marjah six months ago, when ANCOP units were thrown together and rushed into the fight with little experience working with their colleagues, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are moving more deliberately in Kandahar, the biggest southern city and the Taliban's former headquarters. They're resolved to defeat the militants with minimal use of force.

But the ANCOP, which struggled in Marjah, may still not be ready for prime time.

The ANCOP unit in Hadi's area is from Kabul, about 300 miles to the northeast. So they're unfamiliar with the territory and the language spoken in Kandahar.

That showed during a recent patrol through Hadi's district. The ANCOP troops, accompanied by members of a U.S. Army platoon stationed with them, didn't interact with the Afghans -- except to chase away the droves of children who tailed after the officers and troops.

Razaq Khan Ghilji, a 29-year-old Kandahar teacher, said he didn't think the new police would make any difference in a security situation that has deteriorated steadily in recent years.

"Robbery, murder, their rates are still the same and people are still insecure," Ghilji said. "If they hired people from same area and trained them, then I think the problem can be solved."

Army Capt. Tadd Lyman, the platoon commander and the officer who met with Hadi, described the ANCOP officers as a well-trained and skilled group. But he acknowledged the regional differences pose obstacles because in Afghanistan people are defined by their tribe and ethnicity.

"They have a more difficult time relating to one another," said Lyman, a lanky U.S. Military Academy graduate who's been in Afghanistan for nearly a year. "They don't have the level of interest in a region they're not from, which I think can be a problem."

After the assault on Marjah in February, ANCOP officers were brought in to help secure the area. Modeled on European police services such as the French gendarmes, the ANCOP were described as a well-trained and educated outfit that would help clean up and secure the town.

But U.S. Marines often found them lacking.

In central Marjah, Marines had trouble getting ANCOP troops to man checkpoints -- they'd send them out only to find later that there was no one there. The excuse: unwillingness to stay out all night without night vision goggles.

"The Taliban don't have night vision do they?" one Marine derisively joked.

The Marines also complained that their ANCOP counterparts wouldn't patrol on their own, instead heading out to a targeted area and then just dispersing into town for a few hours before returning to base. Some Marines complained they would have been better off with more Afghan army soldiers, who are more heavily armed.

Skepticism that the ANCOP will display more skill and professionalism than regular police runs deep among many people in Kandahar.

"For us new ones or old ones are all the same," said shopkeeper Khaliq Pashtoon, 27. "You know that many people in the police are taking drugs and also involved with criminal activities so how they can bring any change?"

A few weeks ago, Lyman, 25, moved his platoon along with the ANCOP detachment into a former bath house built by the United Nations in the southern part of Kandahar. U.S. military engineers have fortified the compound with guard towers, high concrete walls, and concertina wire. The local police station is adjacent.

Eventually, Lyman's platoon and the ANCOP will be relocating a few miles south when construction on a new control station is complete.

The changes are part of an unfolding plan to ring Kandahar city and outlying districts with heavier layers of U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces to block the insurgents from moving freely.

Ultimately, U.S. and NATO officials envision a stable area in which local governance can take hold and deliver security and other critical services to the people.

The operation will test the abilities of ANCOP, who number 5,200 nationwide with 1,200 in training.

Just after midnight last Friday, Sgt. Jorge Gonzalez, who was on guard duty, rousted the sleeping platoon to full alert. A brief shootout had been reported across town between another U.S. military unit and insurgents.

Three nights earlier, the ANCOP headquarters in Kandahar city was attacked by suicide bombers, killing three American soldiers, an Afghan policeman and five civilians.

So Lyman's superiors weren't taking any chances.

"100 percent security," called Gonzalez. Soldiers tumbled out of their cots, pulling on their uniforms and grabbing their weapons.

But the ANCOP, who occupy a different wing of the compound, didn't rush. They don't have the equipment to operate in the dark.

"It's easier for us to use our night vision and look out to see what's happening, rather than the ANCOP see something that they think might be dangerous and have an incident because they chose to use their weapons when they shouldn't of," Lyman explained.

During the meeting with Hadi, the police commander, Lyman defended the searches and checkpoints, saying his men need to check out anything that looks suspicious. Much of the scrutiny took place in early July as the unit was moving into to the new compound and needed to maintain tight security during that vulnerable stage, he said.

But Lyman also promised to work closely with the local police and use a lighter touch. He invited Hadi's officers to join the foot patrols. And both sides agreed to share information that would help make the neighborhood safer.

"You've been here three or four years," Lyman said. "I've been here two weeks."

No members of the ANCOP attended the meeting.

Afterward, Lyman attributed the animosity from the local police to jealousy.

"The ANCOP is a slightly higher level," he said. "They're more professional."

Associated Press Writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: