Police Mistrust Threatens US-Afghan Alliance in Key Town
This is part two of David Axe's three part series on efforts to hand over security to Afghans. Part 1 | Part 3
Last updated on: March 12, 2012 8:00 PM
The effort to shore up security in Afghanistan is shifting.
As U.S. and other NATO troops prepare to depart, they are stepping up the training of local security forces and weakening the Taliban where they can. In the remote eastern town of Marzak, Afghanistan, a plan to shut down a nearby Taliban supply line nearly collapsed when one police leader rebelled.
The Marzak strategy hinged on setting up a new, tribe-based local police force capable of defending the town against Taliban fighters. After two weeks of training, the first 50 police began duty.
That's when actions by one rebellious police officer threatened the entire coalition strategy.
As the first batch of Afghan local police (ALP) prepared to graduate in late January, U.S. Army Capt. Jim Perkins received disturbing news from Marzak's elders.
"This morning one of the members of the ALP decided he wanted to go out on patrol and round up people he said were Taliban. What we suspect was he had personal vendettas and issues that he had against people," said Perkins.
Local elders said an Afghan squad leader named Mohamad Aman made false accusations and he was not even authorized to make arrests on his own. The elders threatened to withdraw their support.
Coalition troops have struggled for years to train local security forces that the local population trusts. One local police officer says he saw signs of trouble coming.
"There was a dispute between Mohamad Aman and another village commander," Noor Salam, a local Afghan police officer, recalled.
Perkins and his Afghan and American sergeants reacted swiftly. Perkins apologized to elder Mullah Anwar while others seized Mohamad Aman's weapon.
Perkins told Aman he was fired and the remaining police officers graduated as planned. But the trouble was not over.
That night, 10 officers loyal to Aman said they would quit unless Perkins reinstated Aman. They reached a compromise. Perkins arranged a job for Aman in another town, and the 10 officers agreed to remain on duty.
Perkins says the coalition sometimes recruits police by appealing to their tribal loyalties. But the strategy can backfire.
"If you played on those [tribal loyalties] too much, then you start running the risk of developing tribal warfare or inflamming those tensions," Perkins noted. "So what we try to do is diffuse those tensions."
The situation in Marzak was not an isolated incident.
Rights groups in Afghanistan have harshly criticized local tribal police for abuses, including rape and murder. But tribal forces still play a key role in the coalition's Afghanistan endgame and U.S. commanders say they continue to monitor them closely.