In Afghanistan, police work is like fighting a war. Ask Haji Khodaydad, police chief of Bala Beluk, a district in Afghanistan's southwestern province of Farah. Since he took over in April, Khodaydad has lost nearly two dozen men in skirmishes with militants, making his the most dangerous of Afghanistan's 366 districts. But despite the risks, Khodaydad chooses to fight. "The Americans have come to support the government of Afghanistan," he says. "We have to fight too."
Good policing is one of the fundamentals of successful counterinsurgency. Militaries can fight battles, but a daily police presence counters an insurgency at its most basic level. Police know the community they work in, and are much more likely to pick up on suspicious activity. "Once you stabilize an area the problem doesn't come from conventional forces," says Mark Laity, NATO's former spokesman in Kabul. "It comes from that chap, who you have not seen before, who is behaving a little bit oddly. The people around him know there is something wrong, but as a foreigner you don't really understand, so that is why we need to develop the police."
Police are also the most visible extension of a central government. They are expected to provide basic security, not just from militants, but from criminals. A long history of corruption has reduced the image of Afghanistan's police to little more than uniformed thieves, which in turn fosters a general distrust in government and a powerful propaganda tool for militants.
Key posts along major transport routes, such as Bala Beluk, go for $200,000 or more a year, money that is then recouped up to eight-fold via tolls, pay-offs and unofficial taxes on merchants. One hapless would-be district chief, General Habibullah, sold his Corolla in order to pay the 150,000 Afghanis ($3000) bribe he thought he needed to secure a lucrative post in the northern province of Takhar, only to learn his mistake a day later: the request for 150,000 referred to dollars, not the local currency. "One hundred and fifty thousand Afghanis didn't seem like a lot of money, and I thought I could help my people at the same time," he says.
Both Afghan police and Western observers describe a kind of pyramid scheme of corruption that goes to the top of the Afghan government. "It's like a feudal system," says Captain David Panian, a U.S. reservist now training Afghan Police in Western Afghanistan. "The baron pays the count, the count pays the duke, the duke pays the king. So if you are Joe Chief of Bala Beluk, in order to maintain your job you have to give X amount to the provincial guy, and he has got to give it to the regional guy and so on all the way to the top."
That is why brave, honest cops like Khodaydad are so important, and so hard to find. And why the U.S. military is hoping to replicate his achievements in a new mentoring program dubbed Focused District Development. In FDD, every officer in a single district is sent to one of four regional training centers where they are taught tactics, maneuvers, first aid and basic policing skills. They also learn about human rights and rule of law. One patrolman confided to his trainer that he never knew beating his wife was illegal.
Trainees are scrutinized for corrupt tendencies and tribal prejudices that would prevent them from applying the law equally. Still, fewer than 5% fail to pass; a small number considering the levels of criminality that plague Afghanistan's police corps. Khodaydad blames the system more than individuals, and believes that the training, combined with enforcement, will go a long way towards curing the disease. "The men know right from wrong, but they get used to corruption, so it seems normal to them to steal at checkpoints. If their commanders are not telling them to steal, they won't."
The eight weeks of training may root out some corruption, but it is not enough to bring security to the insurgency-wracked villages of southern Afghanistan. Afghan police are only lightly armed. They carry AK-47s, and each truck is mounted with a Russian light machine gun. In Bala Beluk, Khodaydad's forces routinely face insurgents armed with an arsenal of mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, armor piercing rounds and increasingly sophisticated Improvised Explosive Devices. Between March 2007 and March 2008 police casualties hit 1119, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Afghan National Army deaths, by contrast, were 280. In the six months since March, another 720 police have died. "Our police have changed to a combat force," says Munir Mohammad Mangal, the deputy minister of interior in charge of police. "The ANA goes to an area, clears it and leaves. But the police have to stay in one place and maintain security."
Mangal estimates that 10 to 15 police are killed or wounded every day. The death toll has prompted accusations from security analysts and development organizations that the police are being used as cannon fodder a cheaper version of the ANA, which benefits from several more months worth of training, and better weapons. Major General Robert Cone, the U.S. commander in charge of building the Afghan security forces, defends the program, pointing out that the ANA is still too small to tie brigades down to high-risk districts when the mobile forces are required to clear other insecure areas. Instead, police districts that have gone through FDD are paired with U.S. military mentor teams that are able to provide back up and call in air support. "My goal is to keep small numbers of westerners in key positions," says Cone. "If the police have Americans with them when the bad guys roll in, in a short period of time you get on the radio and you have American or coalition air power overhead and that will drive the enemy away."
On the ground in Bala Beluk, the trainers see a more pressing reason to have embedded mentors: preventing the newly trained police from backsliding into old practices, and protecting them from corrupt officials who are threatened by clean cops. They compare Bala Beluk to 1970s New York City, with its toxic mix of gang warfare, corruption, organized crime and drug commerce. Khodaydad, they say, is an Afghan Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed systematic and widespread corruption within the city's police ranks, and was shot by heroin dealers in what was thought to have been a hit organized by corrupt colleagues. Khodaydad is the only non-commissioned officer in Afghanistan to have risen to the rank of police chief, which he did with the support of his U.S. mentors. As such, he circumvented the traditional system of payoffs that have brought many non-FDD chiefs to power. He has no need to take bribes from smugglers, or tax merchants in his district. And he doesn't skim the salaries of his men.
Still, Khodaydad is aware that his honesty has unintended consequences. For one thing, there's the $30,000 price on his head. He doesn't know exactly who set the hit, but he has been warned repeatedly. One suspect, he says, is Farah's provincial police chief Khalilullah Rahmani. "Because I am not paying Khalil [Rahmani], he is forced to take the money I would give him in other ways," says Khodaydad. One of those ways, say both Khodaydad and his U.S. mentors, is by withholding vital supplies such as fuel and ammunition to sell on the black market. Rahmani denies that he withholds supplies, and told TIME he is waiting for fuel to come from Kabul. He also says that he has not paid any bribes for his own post, and calls Khodaydad's charge that he put a hit out on the district police chief "a plot against me."
It's no coincidence that the most honest police district in the region is also the most targeted by Taliban insurgents. Most of the other district police chiefs try to stay out of the Taliban's way, or actively support them by donating weapons meant for cops on the beat. Khodaydad estimates that he gets into at least two engagements with militants a week, while surrounding districts are tranquil. "The government in Farah is working hand in hand with the Taliban," he says. "Khalil [Rahmani] asks me, 'Why do you fight? You are the only one. Why don't you relax like me, take taxes and enjoy life?'" Rahmani claims to have good relations with all the district police chiefs, and denies that he has said anything like this. Officials at the Ministry of Interior and U.S. police mentor, though, say that Rahmani is "a problem." Last month he was suspended on suspicion of misconduct, only to be reinstated a day later. Rahmani told TIME that, "being appointed or removed from a governmental post is very natural."
Major General Cone recognizes that turning the Afghan National Police into a professional force will take years. Khalil is simply a minor player on the bottom rungs of a ladder that goes much higher. "Right now there are too many people who can pick up a phone and say to their man in the Ministry of the Interior, 'Call down and move 200 guys this way,' or 'look the other way on this,'" says Cone. "Reform will be essential to fixing the police."
The most effective thing Cone's mentors can do for now is support the guys who are making an effort to reform themselves, like Khodaydad. "If the coalition left I would quit," he says. "There is no way to fight with this leadership. We would have no food and no ammunition. We would have to be like the other commanders, driven to stealing in order to sustain ourselves. It would be better to stay at home." And Afghanistan would be the more dangerous for it.
With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul