The Afghan national sport is called buzkashi. It's a game in which horsemen battle over a goat carcass. There are no established teams.
During a match, the competitors forge brief, continuously shifting alliances. They only work together until they have gained a short-term advantage. The game can last for hours, even days. The winner is the rider who manages to carry the carcass to the goal. Buzkashi is a mirror of Afghan society.
By contrast, the German police officers who train local recruits in Afghanistan have brought soccer balls and nets to their base in Mazar-e-Sharif. Football is all about teamwork and team spirit. The goal is to form a team and achieve an objective together.
In a corner of the training center, on a patch of parched earth, there is now a soccer field where the next generation of Afghan police officers is learning the game.
"What we want to achieve with the recruits is a change in mentality," says a German instructor. More team spirit, a better sense of community, more loyalty. More soccer, less buzkashi.
Over the past 10 years, Germany has instructed some 56,000 Afghan police officers at four training centers in the region. The training is part of Germany's responsibility as a member of NATO, and so far the project has cost some €380 million ($503 million). As many as 200 German police officers are regularly stationed in Afghanistan, most of them in Mazar-e-Sharif.
But anyone who accompanies the German security aid workers for a few days is bound to doubt the mission's effectiveness after observing the mood among the officers and reading between the lines of official statements. Even now, when Western security forces have entered their 11th year of training, the police in Afghanistan don't stand for public order and security -- but rather for helplessness, arbitrariness and corruption.
A Prime Target
"The mission is neither effective nor sustainable," says Josef Scheuring, chairman of the Germany's largest police union, the GdP, adding that it endangers the lives of the German police officers. "We should withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible," urges Scheuring. Nevertheless, police officers continue to work in the region, usually for a year. They are attracted by overseas bonuses of up to €200 per day.
Alex, 32, a mid-level police officer from the northeastern German town of Ueckermünde, is one of them. He is due to meet with Ayatullah at the Regional Police Training Center (RPTC) in Mazar-e-Sharif late in the afternoon. The next day, the 22-year-old low-ranking officer in the Afghan national police force will show class 6.2 how a road checkpoint works.
"Checkpoints are crucial," says Alex, adding that "they have a high death rate." This makes it important to teach "survival skills," as he puts it. Of all the uniformed officials in Afghanistan, police officers are at the highest risk.
Secluded from the outside world, many of them spend weeks at such checkpoints and are charged with representing the state. They are a symbol of the new Afghanistan, which is massively supported by the West -- and thus a prime target for insurgents. There are currently some 150,000 police officers in Afghanistan. Since 2002, when various Western nations launched training programs, it's estimated that nearly 10,000 police officers have been killed -- and some 15 percent desert the force every year.
Alex plans the next day with Ayatullah. "We'll meet at 7:50 a.m. in front of the armory, and by 8:20 a.m. the checkpoint will be set up. Is that enough time?" asks Alex.
"No problem," says Ayatullah.
"We need a patrol car and a civilian car, plus three boxes as barriers. Ideally, by this evening already. Is that okay?"
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow," says Alex.
A Critical Phase
The ambitious project of developing an Afghan police force, which was to operate at least according to the basic principles of its German counterpart, began 10 years ago and involved three phases.
Phase 1, training recruits, was completed long ago.
Phase 2, instructing the police officers in practical operations on location, was abandoned last year. German police officers -- at the time still under the protection of German soldiers -- drove through the country for hours to call on various police stations. Since they had to be back before sundown due to security concerns, there often remained very little time for training.
Phase 3 is currently underway: Afghan police officers train Afghan recruits while the Germans monitor them. They correct mistakes and give suggestions. Based on the methodology and didactics of the German police school, it is hoped that the Afghans can train uneducated men to become good officers in just eight weeks.
Like all German police officers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Alex is living at Camp Marmal, the headquarters of the coalition troops in northern Afghanistan. The ISAF military base is one of the safest places in the country -- a well-equipped artificial world with shops, cafeterias, gyms and pool tables. Private security guards stand at the gates, while soldiers patrol outside the compound. A zeppelin floats in the sky, jam-packed with cameras and surveillance electronics.
The German police officers are not allowed to leave the camp. They used to accept invitations to eat meals with locals, were allowed to move about freely and had opportunities to get to know the country. Today, that would be unthinkable. The upcoming ISAF withdrawal has made the security situation extremely precarious.
Lieutenant General Rainer Glatz, the commander of all German military operations abroad, says that the mission in Afghanistan has reached a "critical phase." Glatz says the Afghan army and police will soon undergo a litmus test to see whether and how they can ensure security without outside help.
A Certain Kind of Order
Alex from Ueckermünde begins his workday at 6:15 a.m. with breakfast in the air-conditioned canteen. At 7 a.m., he goes to the barracks where the German police have their offices. Some two dozen men and women have gathered there. They are wearing khaki-colored uniforms made of breathable fabrics with "vector protection," a special treatment that is designed to prevent bites from blood-sucking arthropods like ticks and flying insects.
A security briefing is part of the daily routine for the Germans at Camp Marmal. A colleague brings them up to speed: In Helmand Province, 15 men and 2 women were decapitated, allegedly because they had celebrated and danced; in Laghman Province in the east, two US soldiers were killed by Afghan military personnel. And in the north, where Camp Marmal is located, there were "no incidents."
That is no coincidence, because the north is under the control of Governor Atta Mohammed Noor. The former warlord is one of the richest men in the country. Every day, hundreds of supplicants wait for an opportunity to enter his office, which is decorated with chandeliers, paintings and silk upholstered chairs.
In the governor's realm, the opium smuggling trade is booming, as are alcohol sales and business with prostitutes from Tajikistan. The Western forces simply look the other way. Otherwise "the fragile economic system would collapse," said a US major during a confidential discussion behind the ISAF barracks.
Governor Noor stands for a certain amount of order. It is not the order that comes from the rule of law -- but it is enough for the German government to thank him with the construction of a new airport in Mazar-e-Sharif. A consulate general is due to be opened next year.
A Proud People
The RPTC training center is located roughly 800 meters (2,600 feet) from Camp Marmal. Before the Germans drive there, they each put on bulletproof vests, grab a G-36 assault rifle and climb into an armored SUV.
The Germans also carry their weapons on the secured military base. Their Afghan colleagues, however, must surrender their arms at the gate. An Afghan, a uniform and a loaded weapon can be a deadly combination in this part of the world. Some 50 ISAF soldiers have been shot by Afghans in uniform this year alone. The Taliban proudly boasts that it has managed to infiltrate the local police force. As a precautionary measure, the Kalashnikovs distributed to class 6.2 shortly before 8 a.m. are missing their firing pins. That way any cartridges smuggled into the training center couldn't hurt anyone.
Ayatullah, the Afghan police instructor, has the checkpoint set up. "Where is the patrol car?" asks Alex, the German instructor.
Ayatullah hesitates. His superiors didn't want to hand over the car, he admits. He says they use it to drive home in the evening. They told him to tell the Germans that they would only make the vehicle available if they were given more gasoline.
His superiors are playing buzkashi with squad cars. As a result, class 6.2 practices without a vehicle.
Ayatullah assigns positions at the checkpoint. Four recruits secure the area, one stops an oncoming civilian car, and two others stand behind him. Stop, hands up, search the vehicle, make arrests.
Alex is not satisfied.
"Ayatullah should have explained the process once again to the entire class before the exercise, ideally at each individual stage," he says. Many of the recruits were not paying attention or didn't even understand which task had been assigned to them, he criticizes. Although Ayatullah has professional knowledge, he can't teach it to others, says the German.
At 10:15 a.m., the Afghan trainer and his German supervisor meet to review the session. "How did it go?" asks Alex.
"Really well," says Ayatullah, who is beaming.
Alex was expecting that answer. "Nevertheless, we have to talk about a few points," he says. The trick is to package the criticism so it sounds like praise. The Afghans are a proud people.
Running Out of Time
Eight weeks is not much time to make a police officer of a man who has perhaps never attended a school. The country's illiteracy rate is currently at roughly 70 percent, and sometimes the recruits don't understand a word, for instance, if an instructor tries to teach a group of Pashtuns in Dari. Only the most basic knowledge is taught: roadblocks, house searches, self-defense and making arrests, weaponry and a few legal principles, including human rights.
But is that enough?
Interior Minister for the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lorenz Caffier, who also currently heads the German Interior Ministers' Conference, has his doubts. The problem is "that in Afghanistan we primarily train recruits for basic police service," says Caffier, "and we don't know how many of them will remain with the police force and how many will go to work for the warlords." The conservative politician, who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says it would be preferable to train more senior officers who are less embedded in the country's old clan structures.
Not much time is left, though. By the end of February 2014, the number of German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan will have been reduced from the Bundeswehr's current force of nearly 4,500 to 3,300 -- and German combat troops will have been completely withdrawn by the end of 2014. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, says that he intends "to consolidate what has been accomplished, even after 2014," adding that a "certain presence" by German police officers will be required in the region to achieve this.
But Alex and his colleagues on the ground in Afghanistan are asking themselves how long the camp will remain intact after the withdrawal. There is a great deal of concern that the training center will fall into disrepair, the air conditioning units will no longer be maintained, and that many items that can be used privately will quickly go missing. The establishment plan for the Afghan police does not include positions for maintenance workers.
After the lunch break, Alex turns his attention to another Afghan instructor: Tarek. This time the focus is on arrest and search techniques. Tarek stands confidently in front of the group, speaking loudly and gesticulating frequently. He also provides explanations, allows the recruits to practice individual steps and intervenes when necessary.
Then a recruit appears, wrapped in a large cloak with fuses visible from underneath. It's time to practice handling suicide bombers.
"Shout loudly to warn everyone around you, run backwards as quickly as possible and look for cover," explains Tarek.
"Only open fire if the insurgent attempts to detonate the bomb," Alex reminds them. Then he admits that only a bullet aimed at the head will help. "And quickly," he adds.
The day is over. Tarek collects empty water bottles and the recruits return to their living quarters. The Afghan head of the medical center at Camp Marmal climbs behind the wheel of his Ford Ranger. The colonel passes the checkpoints and takes the paved road toward the center of Mazar-e-Sharif. He drives for nearly 10 kilometers -- first through a desert-like landscape, then past garages, filling stations and shops. Shortly after entering the town, he turns left.
The car rumbles over a path through one of the city's better neighborhoods, where multi-story buildings are hidden from view behind high walls. Shortly before the medical officer reaches his own house, he passes by a corner property. Two men clad in Afghan army uniforms are trimming a hedge in the front garden. "A general lives here," the colonel explains.
The colonel is a member of the police force. He has to trim his own hedges -- at least as long as the Germans are still in Afghanistan.