February 6, 2011: After nearly a decade of effort, the United States has achieved a major breakthrough in efforts to create an effective national police force in Afghanistan. In short, the Afghans have agreed to fire hundreds of police commanders identified by NATO police trainers and advisors as corrupt or incompetent (often both). The Afghan government long resisted calls for this sort of thing, as senior police jobs were patronage, an easy way to win support out in the countryside. In some cases, politicians in the capital received some of the payoffs and other loot collected by corrupt police chiefs. But now, even senior politicians realize that corrupt cops only drive people to support the Taliban. This change in attitude towards police corruption is a major shift in Afghan thinking.
Afghanistan has long had major problems with police. To begin with, police are something most Afghans regard as a foreign institution. As initially implemented in Afghanistan, the national police were a threat to the people, not a force that "protects and serves." Too many police saw themselves as bandits with a badge. All this goes back to the fact that Afghanistan has never been a country in the modern sense, but rather a tribal confederation dominated by the Pushtuns. Before the 18th century, what is now Afghanistan was part of various empires (Indian, Iranian, Mongol, Greek). But in the 18th century, with the profitable trade routes from China made obsolete by Western ships, the Pushtuns got organized, and sought to establish an empire. After much effort, they failed. By the 19th century, the advancing Russian and British empires had reduced Afghanistan to its present borders. The Pushtuns were still in charge, although they were now a minority. The king was traditionally a Pushtun, and his main job was to deal with outsiders and arbitrate disputes among the tribes. Law and order, such as it was, depended on tribal customs and local militias or warlords. This did not stop tribal feuds, and wars. Even the king knew when to step back and let the tribes settle their own disputes violently. An "Afghan Army" was a feudal levy of tribal militias, which appeared whenever there was an outsider that threatened many of the tribes. There was usually no police at all. Before the 21st century, the only efforts to create police forces were local, usually in cities and major towns. But in the countryside, where most Afghans still live, the tribe provided whatever police functions they could, and it usually wasn't much.
It has taken nearly a decade for Western nations to fully absorb the reality of the Afghan attitudes towards police. NATO and U.S. police trainers have bit the bullet in Afghanistan, and drastically upgraded recruitment standards. From now on, you can't be a cop, unless you are literate. This means the foreigners running the police training operation had to establish a major literacy program. That's because only about 25 percent of Afghans are literate. But it's become clear that illiterate and untrained police are worse than no police at all. That's because cops who can't read and don't know much about proper police procedure tend to be corrupt and a menace to the people they are supposed to be protecting.
Currently, two-thirds of police recruits fail to complete their training, and illiterate recruits have the worst time of it. Despite that, the national police force has been expanded to nearly 80,000. The illiteracy problem has always been recognized as a problem. Currently, only 35 percent of all policemen are literate. While this can be ignored for many of the lower ranking personnel, police supervisors need to read. Moreover, illiterate recruits take longer to train, and more effort to work with.
The U.S. has provided an intensive literacy course for soldiers, which gets most of them to basic ("functional") literacy within a year. A similar program was implemented for the police. They needed it, and it was noted that it made a big difference. In addition to learning how to read signs and maps, the newly semi-literate police were taught to sign their names, and write out the serial number of their weapon.
Illiterate police selected for promotion to sergeant were given more literacy training. That's because being able to read and write has long been a critical asset for any paramilitary force. The Roman Empire, at its height 1800 years ago, had an army over 100,000 troops, a third of which were literate. But with modern forces, an abundance of technology makes literacy even more necessary. The Afghans can get by without it, but can do a lot better with it.
The police have another problem. Until last year, many police recruits received no training at all. That had a lot to do with the high dropout rate. That has changed, but it will be several years before all police are trained to an acceptable level. But Western nations have never been able to provide a sufficient number of trainers. This makes it difficult to establish some essential procedures, like how to work with Afghan Army units or operate modern police technology (databases, biometric data, crime scene investigation and so on.)
In fact, there are some even more serious problems with the cops, mainly because of a lack of good leadership. That is expected to change as more corrupt commanders are dismissed. Still, Afghanistan has never had a real national police force, and building one isn't easy. The culture of corruption, and tribalism, plus widespread illiteracy, are proving to be formidable obstacles. Those police units that are well led (and there are some of them) and have worked out good relationships with local tribal leaders (difficult, because of the many feuds, and short tempers), do a good job. Having to battle the Taliban and drug gangs puts additional strain on an already weak force, so improving the quality of new cops is a matter of survival for the force.