With violence on the rise throughout Afghanistan, the Kabul government is recruiting thousands of auxiliary police to combat a growing insurgency. The auxiliaries will relieve Afghanistan's thin-stretched international security forces and regular police, but they get only the most basic training.
Supporters see the new auxiliary police force as critical in the effort to beat back the Taleban, but critics say the program is fueling the violence by rearming local militias. And there are reports that Taleban extremists may have infiltrated the police auxiliaries. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from a police-training center in southern Afghanistan.
A final practice shot before heading out to face the real enemy...
Every 14 days, more than 200 men pass through this training compound in Kandahar. In two weeks they are expected to learn how to use a weapon and handle explosives, how to make arrests and uphold the Afghan constitution.
Ttwo of the young recruits, Jalil Luden and Noor Mohammed, are confident.
Luden, is 19 years old. He says, "We are not scared. It is my own country. We have to help." Mohammed, 20, adds, "Our country is like our own mother. We will defend her from any enemy, from any terrorist."
In the next 12 months the government plans to deploy more than 11,000 auxiliary police. U.S. and Canadian forces at centers like this one will train them.
Most will be stationed in four key southern provinces, including the Taleban's traditional strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand.
These are the front lines for Afghanistan's young democracy, fighting against the hard-line Islamic Taleban insurgency. The national army is stretched thin, and the police are the only security force in many isolated regions.
Here in Kandahar, the police say they can not cope with the surge in militant activity.
Many local police units say they have less than half the equipment they need. Outmanned and outgunned, they are losing ground to Taleban extremists. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai announced the new auxiliary force in response to those concerns. The auxiliary police are supposed to reinforce regular units in the hardest-hit areas.
Sergeant Mark Davidson, the head police trainer at this base, talks about the relationship between the Afghan National Police force, which he calls A.N.P., and the national auxiliary police, or A.N.A.P. "It's very important that these (auxiliary) A.N.A.P. get trained to an adequate level as soon as possible, so that we can put them out with the (regular) A.N.P. in a support position, doing the jobs that A.N.P. would normally be doing, so they [the police regulars] can be free to do other tasks."
But there is mounting opposition to the new auxiliary force, which critics say is little more than a legalized militia.
Many of the recruits used to work for local warlords. After just two weeks here, the question is, will the new policemen be more loyal to their former bosses or to the Afghan government, based hundreds of kilometers away in Kabul?
A second, more troubling concern arises from suspicions that Taleban members have infiltrated the new police force. American trainers say as many as one in 10 of the new recruits is a Taleban agent.
General Nasrullah Zarifi is the senior Afghan official at the Kandahar training compound. He says, in fact, it is a good sign that the Taleban are joining the police. "All of us call the insurgents our unhappy brothers. We want them to come and work with us. We have no problem with them; our doors are always open for them."
Most new recruits are local men, and for many this is their first job. Southern Afghanistan's unemployment rate is estimated at 40 percent or higher, after decades of war and civil conflict.
General Zarifi and others force argue that without these jobs, the Taleban would almost certainly entice some of these young police recruits into joining the insurgency.
Even so, $70 a month from the government is hardly enough to support their families. The Taleban reportedly pays its fighters at least $200 a month.
And so the battle for hearts and minds continues, and the fight to secure southern Afghanistan has little end in sight.