Can the Afghans Keep Order?

As the Marja offensive winds down, it falls to local police to keep order. But the State Dept. and defense contractors have done a lousy job of preparing them.


President Obama says bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces is critical to ultimate success in Afghanistan, and few would dispute the point. But how to bolster those forces is a far more difficult question. It’s an issue that has bedeviled NATO for years—and will become an especially vital concern when soldiers begin falling back after the Marja offensive and the burden of holding on to the gains shifts to the local police. Lieutenant General William G. Caldwell, the new commander of the NATO training mission, has declared Afghan leadership the mission’s top priority for 2010—a welcome departure from prior years, when NATO often lost sight of the quality of the Afghans' officer corps. Experience has shown time and again that defeating rural insurgents hinges on the caliber of army and police leaders.

DynCorp and INL squandered six years of training by focusing on quantity and neglecting quality.

Last month, I travelled to Afghanistan at the invitation of the NATO training mission to examine leadership development, and to discuss leadership issues with Afghan and American commanders. General Caldwell, General Stanley McChrystal, and other senior NATO leaders are working vigorously to help the Afghans overhaul their leadership, as I saw firsthand. But several major problems stand in the way of progress—the most pressing of which is the struggle over Afghan police training.

The American defense contractor DynCorp provides training to the Afghan police under the supervision of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL. DynCorp and INL were supposed to have turned over all police training to the NATO training mission by now, but the transition has been suspended by an appeal from DynCorp. The suspension threatens to set the training effort back by months, if not years.

The State Department hired DynCorp in November 2003 to mass-produce Afghan policemen because the Germans in charge of police training were generating insufficient numbers. By the end of 2004, DynCorp had trained 32,000 Afghans, and it has continued the mass production ever since. Although the numbers of policemen trained sound impressive, they count for little because so many policemen have deserted, robbed the population, or refused to chase the insurgents. DynCorp and INL squandered six years of training by focusing on quantity and neglecting quality, especially the quality of leaders, who are much harder to produce than rank-and-file policemen. Minimum standards for leadership recruitment in the Afghan National Police have seldom extended beyond basic literacy. In the rush to churn graduates out quickly, leadership training was compressed to absurd lengths.

At police training facilities and operational headquarters, I spoke with Afghan police officials, NATO police advisers, and contractors from DynCorp and other companies. (No one from INL was to be found.) With the exception of the DynCorp contractors, they were uniformly negative in their assessment of DynCorp and its INL overseers. Many DynCorp contractors, I was told, hand out generic training manuals and then stay put in their offices, when they should instead circulate in the training facilities to see whether the Afghan instructors are teaching effectively, if at all.

Motivation is often low among DynCorp personnel. Some lack the basic social skills required for successful interaction with the Afghans. I personally witnessed two instances of boorish behavior by DynCorp contractors, of sufficient magnitude to poison personal relationships in any culture.

INL lacks personnel with the experience and personality to oversee big contracts or manage large organizations, despite many previous recommendations from inspectors general to hire such individuals. Rarely do INL employees visit training facilities to check up on the contractors. Nor has INL confronted the Afghan government when Afghan police commanders have underperformed.

Oversight in Afghanistan is performed by the same INL division that oversees DynCorp contracts in Iraq. A newly released inspector general report found the same problems of DynCorp ineffectiveness and INL inattention in Iraq, along with shoddy accounting practices. The problems in Iraq are especially disturbing because the Defense Department is scheduled to give INL control of all assistance to Iraq’s police next year.

In response to the criticisms, DynCorp issued a statement: “DynCorp is proud of its work in Afghanistan training and mentoring the Afghan National Police,” the statement said, according to The New York Times. The State Department has been more willing to acknowledge its shortcomings—promising that it will do better. But the problem is that State has been saying the same thing year after year, and the situation has not been getting better.

Too much is at stake in Afghanistan and Iraq to include DynCorp and INL in the future of their police forces. Other security contractors have a better track record than DynCorp in the police business, and the Defense Department has a better track record than the State Department in the oversight business. The military, moreover, has achieved good results in Afghanistan and Iraq by committing its own personnel to police development and helping weed out bad police commanders.

Well-meaning civilian officials and political scientists will protest that the military should be kept separate from the police to avoid militarization of the state. But when insurgents brandish assault rifles and civilianized police forces cannot stop them, such objections violate common sense. Afghan police officers with Defense Department training who can respect the population and defend themselves are far better than officers trained under State’s auspices who prey on the citizenry or perish out of their own incompetence.

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Mark Moyar is professor of national-security affairs at the Marine Corps University and author, most recently, of A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.