Illiterate, Corrupt and Trigger-Happy: German Trainers Describe Pitiful State of Afghan Police

By Andreas Ulrich and Alfred Weinzierl

A functioning police force is seen as a prerequisite for a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. German trainers, however, paint a disastrous picture of the quality of Afghan security forces. Too many police, they say, can't read or write, can't shoot straight and are taking bribes.

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The delegation of police trainers and soldiers from Germany, Hungary and the United States had come prepared for a work meeting. They had expected it to be somewhat formal at first, but that it would become more relaxed as the meeting progressed.

Abdul Rahman Khaili, the police chief of Baghlan province in Afghanistan, had invited the group to a reception. But when the guests arrived at the police headquarters building, there was no one there to greet them -- only a strange, eerie silence.

Until a man in an Afghan uniform appeared, approached the delegation with measured steps and, when he was close enough, blew himself up.

Networks of Relationships

Two Americans died and five people were wounded. The target of the attack was Police Chief Khaili, the provincial governor said in a hasty statement.

But international investigators had a different theory. They believed that Khaili might have been behind the suicide bombing. He was seen as a man with ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and he was suspected of being involved in the opium trade.

But nothing happened to the police chief, despite massive protests from Berlin and Washington. "There are networks of relationships that are much more powerful than the government in Kabul," says a German police inspector who spent a long time working as an adviser in Afghanistan and traveled widely in the country.

He tells the story to illustrate his view that Afghanistan will never function in accordance with the rules of Western civilization, not even at a police headquarters building. "We don't recognize the Afghan reality, and that's why we will fail there," says the inspector.

Crash Courses

For the last eight years, Germany, working with the United States, has been building a police force in Afghanistan. The effort was very academic and very thorough at first -- and also very naïve. Eventually the Germans gained the support of other European Union countries. Since 2008, German trainers have been giving eight-week crash courses in an attempt to turn Afghan men into law enforcement officials. It is a mission impossible.

SPIEGEL interviewed a number of German police officers who participated for a year or more in this impossible task in the land of warlords, Taliban and corrupt rulers. They included organized crime specialists, experienced trainers and senior German officials who advised Afghan cabinet ministers. They didn't want their names to be published, because what they have to say is politically unpopular. Their verdict is unanimous and devastating. "The establishment of rule of law in Afghanistan is an illusion," says one man who was stationed in Kabul until recently.

Last weekend, a German interior minister visited Afghanistan for the first time in six years. Thomas de Maizière visited Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz, where he inaugurated a new training center. German trainers will train up to 500 Afghan police officers a year at the facility. The Kunduz center is a German contribution to the agreements reached at the Afghanistan conference in January. Western forces expect to train an additional 30,000 police officers to protect Afghan citizens by 2012. Half of them will have been trained by German personnel. Germany expects to increase its contingent of trainers to 260 by mid-year.

'We Lose Control Over Them'

De Maizière was given an unvarnished account of what is important in Kunduz. "The emphasis of the training," project coordinator Volker Winkler explained to him, "is always to learn how to survive." Winkler also told de Maizière that German assistance would still be needed after 2012. "We need a lot of police officers in Afghanistan, and we need good police officers. The two things go together."

There's only one problem: The plan isn't working.

That, at least, is the sober assessment of almost everyone involved in the police recruitment and training process. It's the view held by the Americans, who have already pumped $6 billion (€4.4 billion) into the training programs, by the Italians, who sent a Carabinieri unit to the police training center in Kabul in January, and by the Germans. "We are training police officers at top gear," says a senior German official, "and when they leave us, we lose control over them."

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