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A ragtag pursuit of the Taliban

While U.S. officials say the Afghan army has improved markedly since the war began, the poorly trained, ill-equipped national police force has lagged behind.
Image: Armed police stand guard in a street in Kabul, Afghanistan,
Armed police stand guard in a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 19.Rafiq Maqbool / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Lt. Col. Abdul Hamid, a new police commander, was having trouble doing the math. When he took control of this district in the country's north in early July, he had 54 officers. Since then, some had been transferred; others had disappeared.

How many were left?

The commander looked up at the bare light bulb hanging from his office ceiling. Nearby, Maj. Vincent Heintz, a barrel-chested National Guardsman and onetime New York prosecutor, put his palm to his temple and leaned toward Hamid. "Sir, would it be fair to say you don't know how many officers you have working here?" Heintz boomed.

Hamid, reed thin and swimming in his oversize police uniform, smiled affably while the question was translated. He nodded. "No, I don't know how many officers work here," he said.

It was another summer day in the district of Chahar Darreh, where Heintz, 40, and his team of U.S. military advisers are experiencing firsthand the challenges of turning a few dozen Afghans into a frontline counterinsurgency force.

The United States has spent about $6.2 billion since 2002 to transform Afghanistan's national police into a bulwark against the Taliban and other Islamist fighters. About 730 American military advisers have been deployed to help train and equip the force. But as of this spring, not a single one of the 433 police units that have received the training has been judged fully capable of handling its mission or the Taliban threat, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Across Afghanistan, meanwhile, roadside bombs have become more frequent and firefights have grown fiercer. In May and June, more foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Seven years after the United States began its fight against the Taliban, the insurgency is proving more resilient.

While U.S. officials say the Afghan army has improved markedly since the war began, the poorly trained, ill-equipped national police force has lagged behind. About 50 officers a month have been killed this year. From January 2007 to last month, 991 police officers were killed in action, according to U.S. military statistics.

Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of the U.S. military division charged with training Afghan police, said casualties have dropped sharply in districts where police have received focused training and mentoring. But the program, he said, is short of trainers: An additional 2,300 are needed to have a lasting impact in each of the country's police districts.

Here in Chahar Darreh, Heintz and the other U.S. advisers -- most from the New York National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment (Light) -- have a daunting mission: to teach about three dozen men, who earn about $100 a month, how to breach the door of a house like SWAT team commandos; show them how to patrol their beats, interact with residents and gather intelligence; and inspire them to pursue the Taliban, village by village.

The U.S. soldiers who came here are firefighters, paramedics, police officers, civil engineers and information technology consultants, most from New York City. They were seasoned by years in the National Guard and a tour in Iraq. Many of them had walked through the rubble left by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Lower Manhattan. Now, this tightknit crew of New Yorkers is in Afghanistan as part of what its members consider a very personal war.

Back in Hamid's office at police headquarters, Heintz stared at Hamid a long minute.

"Whether you work out here as police commander or not, we have to get this force back up to speed because the insurgency is getting stronger in your district, sir, and your police force is getting smaller," Heintz said. "We have to fix this now. This is an emergency."

The new commander
Chahar Darreh is located in Kunduz province in a vast stretch of remote steppe and rural valleys in northeastern Afghanistan. While the Taliban is most active in the country's south and east, the threat posed by insurgents is growing here.

A week before Hamid arrived, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle made an unsuccessful run at a German convoy. Later, insurgents opened fire with guns and rocket-propelled grenades on two police substations. Then, in the village of Isa Khel, residents began receiving threatening letters from the Taliban, warning them not to send their daughters to the local girls' school. A few days later, the school was temporarily closed.

For decades, Afghan civilians have had no faith in turning to the police for security. Nepotism, bribery, kickbacks and conspiracy have long been the trademarks of policing in Afghanistan. Other than a brief experiment in the 1960s, there has been little concerted effort to weed out corruption. During the Taliban era, policing mainly consisted of enforcing strictly interpreted Islamic laws.

Hamid, an 18-year police veteran, is the third commander to be assigned to Chahar Darreh in nearly five months. When he arrived in the district from the western province of Herat, he brought an entourage: a brother who served as his driver and another relative who acted as Hamid's personal bodyguard.

Heintz, who helped convict New York mob boss John Gotti Jr. for racketeering, had little patience with Hamid's methods. This is not the best way for the new commander to win the hearts and minds of the locals or inspire the confidence of his men, Heintz told Hamid. A few days after his first meeting with the new commander, Heintz advised Hamid to drop his brother as his driver. Ditto the personal bodyguard. And no more burning up scarce government fuel resources on nightly trips home in the government-owned patrol truck, Heintz told Hamid.

Heinz, a blunt-spoken New Yorker who during his tour in Iraq also helped prosecute Saddam Hussein, said he wanted Hamid to get down to the real business of policing his district.

"My question to you, sir, is what is your plan to defend this district?" Heintz asked.

Hamid seemed bewildered. He looked to one of the Afghan officers sitting next to him. Silence.

"My plan is to enforce the law," said Hamid, 42. "I'm not very familiar with the villages or which villages are vulnerable, and I don't have a plan. But I think we should ambush the Taliban."

Walking the beat
Hamid did not have a premier fighting force under his command. His officers wore an assortment of hand-me-down combat boots and black vinyl shoes. The old Soviet-era machine weaponry they hauled around was caked with dirt. The men chafed under the weight of the heavy body armor the U.S. soldiers ordered them to wear.

Most were, at best, semiliterate. Many were poor marksmen. Only some knew how to communicate on the standard police radios donated by Western nations. Several wondered whether they should join the dozens of other police officers who had recently walked off the job after learning they would go unpaid for a second month straight.

Police Sgt. Obaidullah, 20, had decided to stay. Six months earlier, Obaidullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, was living at his family home in Kabul. Now, he found himself taking advice from American soldiers wearing dark sunglasses and carrying rifles that cost the equivalent of six months of his police salary.

The other day, Obaidullah, three other Afghan police officers and a small team of U.S. soldiers walked for about a half-hour along irrigation dikes, dirt roads and row upon row of rice paddies. Long-legged and broad-shouldered, Obaidullah strode toward a group of men squatting in a rice paddy a few dozen yards from where a bomb had recently been found. He questioned the men a few minutes. The interrogation produced no information.

Obaidullah walked on to the next village, and then the next. He shook hands, shyly introducing himself to shopkeepers and elders along the way. This was the way the U.S. advisers had taught him to patrol.

Like many people in this rural northeastern corner of Afghanistan, Obaidullah suspects locals aren't the only ones responsible for violence in his country. He believes that Pakistan is aiding the Taliban insurgency. "The Taliban were bad people," Obaidullah said with a shrug as his patrol began walking toward the next village. "They destroyed this country. They're not Afghan. They're Pakistani. No Afghan would do that to his own country."

Afghan and NATO officials agree that there has been a sharp increase in the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The majority of the fighters, they say, come from Pakistan, after having received training in refugee camps or Taliban bases in the tribal areas between the two countries.

About a mile down the road, an old man picnicking with his family near a small mosque waved Obaidullah over. He complained in a cracking voice about the Taliban in the district. Everyone, he said, knows who is behind all the trouble here.

"Our enemy is obvious; it's Pakistan. Every Afghan is trying to rebuild this country. Look at this road," the man said, flinging his arm out in frustration. "Look at the clinic and the shape it's in. The only reason it remains this way is because of Pakistan. I know who my friends are and who my enemies are."

Every jungle has its fox
At the U.S. forward operating base in Kunduz, New York Guard Capt. Brian Higgins, 30, stared at a map in the communications center. The map was studded with clusters of red pushpins that marked the spots where roadside bombs had either exploded or been uncovered in recent months. Tiny mug shots of various bearded men with turbans were also pasted to the map.

Back in the United States, Higgins works a plainclothes street crimes detail with the New York City police. Much of what he learned about developing a counterinsurgency he picked up from 10 years in the National Guard and six years of working the police beat. Just like civilian criminals in the United States, the insurgents here aren't always easy to identify, Higgins said.

"At a certain point, it becomes detective work," Higgins said. "The enemy is moving among the people."

For U.S. police trainers such as Heintz, part of the job entails teaching Afghan police to recognize and confront insurgent elements in their midst. Alliances forged in wars past have made for strange bedfellows in post-Taliban Afghanistan. As in the rest of the country, few people in Chahar Darreh's small power elite are what they really seem. Many carry with them a complex history of deals done, lives lost, trusts betrayed. For Afghan police, defeating the insurgency means first unmasking the enemy.

Taliban commanders and other warlords used to run this province. Many of them remain in the area. Some are now businessmen; some are landowners; some are criminal defense lawyers. Hasta Khan, a former commander who fought under the infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is all three.

Heintz had learned from a local shopkeeper that a threatening letter -- signed by the Taliban in Khan's name -- had been circulating in Chahar Darreh. If the shopkeeper didn't vacate a tract of land that, according to the letter, belonged to Khan, the shopkeeper would be hearing from the Taliban, the letter read. Khan, Heintz said, would have to be dealt with diplomatically.

A few minutes after Heintz and his convoy pulled into the police headquarters at Chahar Darreh on a recent day, Khan arrived. Thin and elegant in his gray turban, white salwar-kameez and closely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, Khan swept into the commander's office with a flourish. He briskly shook hands with everyone in the room. Then he flashed Heintz a Cheshire grin.

"Welcome, you are most welcome here in Afghanistan. We are happy that you are here to help us rebuild our destroyed district of Chahar Darreh," said Khan, 54, although he had met Heintz several times before.

Khan, a tribal elder in the nearby village of Nawabad and a landowner, is something of a chameleon, Heintz and local Afghan officials said. One minute he defends the rights of common criminals and insurgent fighters. The next he is cozying up to the police and local investigators with Afghanistan's national intelligence agency.

"I'm sure you're going to help our country. There are people coming here from Pakistan and Iran who want to destroy our country. There's been 30 years of war," Khan said. He grinned again as he settled into a rickety chair in the corner of the police commander's office. "I get calls from people in Pakistan all the time, telling me not to work with the Americans. But I know that's not right."

Heintz cut Khan off. Voice booming, the American squared his shoulders. His hands chopped the air as he talked. The tension in the room was palpable.

"Thank you, sir. I'm sure you'll understand then when I tell you that I am concerned because we are hearing reports that people are using your name to threaten people in this district, saying that they are the Taliban," Heintz said, stabbing a finger in Khan's direction. "I want you to listen to me, Mr. Khan. I can tell you right now that if any of these people in this district are harmed in any way, Mr. Khan, you are going to be the first person I'm going to look at to blame."

"It's a conspiracy against me. They're making it up," Khan protested.

"Well, I hope you'll forgive me for having my suspicions, Mr. Khan. But as a wise man once told me here in Chahar Darreh . . . I believe it was you who told me, 'Every jungle has its fox,' " Heintz said.

Khan chuckled, waved his hand dismissively and got up to leave.