Police in Afghanistan are one of the country’s most-criticized security forces, denigrated as corrupt and inept. Yet Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi says police are also the hardest hit, taking 70% of all casualties among government forces, dozens of whom die each day in relentless attacks by Taliban and Islamic State insurgents.
Still, President Donald Trump is impatient with Afghanistan’s police, saying American soldiers have taken on their job and that it’s time for Afghans to step up. He says that’ll allow Washington to end its longest war, now into its 18th year.
Even as Trump abruptly called off a deal with the Taliban earlier this month that seemed imminent, he expressed his frustration with the state of Afghanistan’s security forces, taking particular aim at the policing.
Leading the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, is Andarabi. He’s young, Western-educated and part of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s new generation of leaders. He spoke about what he called a slow, steady overhaul of the police during an interview with The Associated Press inside the heavily fortified ministry in the capital, Kabul.
The upshot: Andarabi is setting up systems that he hopes will result in a professional force, one owned and operated by Afghans. That’s a daunting task, especially in light of the high casualty figures and the mountain of complaints.
In some parts of Kabul resident say they cannot leave their homes after dark because of criminal gangs that roam the streets, many with the help of police, they say.
In the outposts and checkpoints around the country police have struggled for days without reinforcements, food supplies running out and often while under attack by insurgents. Police often posts their dire circumstances on social media.
“I don’t say it is easy or doable in a day, or a month or a year, but it is doable,” he said, attributing his optimism to a concerted effort to recruit a new generation into the police and government ministries in the past year.
Andarabi said he’s instituted a new recruitment and promotion system that’s based on what you know, instead of who you know. It’s an attempt to take the “middle men” out of appointments and promotions to try to tackle corruption that is rife in the selection and promotion of police in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban were ousted, Andarabi said many of the initial police recruits were former militia members loyal to a variety of warlords, who came to power with the ouster of the Taliban.
Today, many senior officers in Afghanistan’s security institutions were only in high school when the Taliban were ousted, he said. They spent the intervening years studying and gaining experience.
“All these new leaders in the security sector … don’t have a legacy of fighting, don’t have the background of different factions, or different groups. This all makes them a team with a common belief,” he said.
He’s also brought in a new computerized data system that tracks allegations of corruption and the officers involved. The hope of this technocratic solution is that eventually a profile will emerge showing areas and people committing the infractions, as well as the types of corruption.
However, the statistics are grim.
In a report released in July, a major source of graft was finally brought into the open by the U.S. watchdog that oversees the billions of dollars in taxpayer money being spent in Afghanistan.
Most of that money goes to the country’s security forces, but it turns out tens of thousands of them don’t actually exist.
A new, tougher-to-fool pay system for Afghan army and police found as many as 35,000 possible “ghost” personnel.
These fake police and soldiers exist only on paper, collecting wages in order for corrupt commanders “to pocket the salaries,” said the report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.
The biggest offenders were the police.
According to the report, the new system siphoned out 25,000 possible “ghost” police, reducing the force to just under 91,600.
Washington spends upward of $4 billion a year on Afghanistan’s security forces and SIGAR’s John Sopko says the security forces are dependent on international financing adding an urgency to Andarabi’s task as international patience with the country’s rampant corruption fades.
Frustrated by the relentless corruption, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said Washington was withdrawing more than $160 million in infrastructure money and other assistance, charging that the Afghan government was rife with corruption.
With presidential elections in Afghanistan coming up on Saturday, Washington’s rare withdrawal of funds and public denunciation of corruption in the government would seem to strike out at the incumbent, Ghani, a leading contender in the race.
Pompeo also issued a warning to all presidential contenders to protect against fraud.
Andarabi said he takes pride in the ministry’s new internal security department, which will keep records of misconduct and allegations of corruption in order to better identify culprits and repeat offenders.
“This all makes it a ‘different police’ and a hope for the future … where the effort of the international community is not being wasted,” he said.