Photo Gallery: Kabul's Keystone Kops

Foto: epa S. Sabawoon/ picture-alliance/ dpa

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

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.

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."

Dead or Vanished

Things were different when the Germans first became involved in Afghanistan. Back then, the training program usually lasted three years. "The applicants were excellent," says an inspector, "motivated and educated." They became good police officers, but there were too few of them. Many were sent to the violent south of the country, says the German inspector. By now, he adds, one-third have been killed and a third have disappeared.

The Americans advocated shortening the training program. Now the Afghan learn how to march, arrest people and shoot in an eight-week course. What they don't learn is how to read and write.

Trainers complain that they spend half of their time translating into the local languages, Pashto and Dari. They say that many recruits are unable to concentrate for more than half an hour, and that often their poor motor skills mean they are unable to do much beyond simply walking in a straight line.

In fact, most of the applicants are rural laborers with no formal education. About 20 percent of the cadets fail the drug tests, and 90 percent are illiterate, a rate higher than the national average.

Obtaining Confessions

When the well-meaning planners at German Federal Police headquarters in Potsdam near Berlin were still feeling ambitious, they sent forensics kits and electron microscopes to the training centers. Today the equipment sits on the shelves gathering dust. As one instructor says, confessions are all that count in the world of the Afghan police. The instructor once asked one of the Afghan officers how he obtained confessions. The officer replied by pointing, somewhat shyly, to his baton.

In the seventh week of training, the police cadets are expected to demonstrate their shooting skills. The test requires them to hit a life-sized cardboard figure at 50 meters (164 feet). Each cadet is allowed 60 shots from an automatic weapon, and 42 must hit the target.

Some of the students are good marksmen, hitting the target 60 times. One cadet even managed to hit it 62 times, because the man standing next to him was shooting a little too far to one side.

Those who score below 42 hits receive a certificate stating that they are not qualified to shoot guns. Nevertheless, they are handed a service weapon at the end of the training course.

"They'll be out there on a checkpoint with an automatic weapon in a couple weeks," one of the trainers told the New York Times.  "I wouldn't want to be an innocent civilian downrange of them."


This is a state of affairs that affects not only the security of people in Afghanistan, but calls the security strategy of the Western world into question. For years, it has been clear that there can be no withdrawal of American troops without a police force that functions at least halfway decently.

Three weeks ago, US President Barack Obama asked military officials in a briefing whether the Afghan police would be ready when the first units begin leaving the country in July 2011. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who has been head of the American police training program since November, briefed the president via video teleconference. According to Newsweek , what he reported did not sit well with Obama at all. "It's inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren't training the police," Caldwell said. "All we did was give them a uniform." The president was reportedly shocked. "It's mind-boggling," he said.

Caldwell estimates that no more than a quarter of Afghanistan's roughly 98,000 police officers has received any formal instruction. This has led to a high death toll. According to a classified German Foreign Ministry report, about 1,200 police officers died in 2007, 1,150 in 2008 and, by the fall of 2009, 760. Most were killed in ambushes, traffic accidents -- or by their own weapons.

'The Taliban Pay More Money'

The lack of reliability of the graduates is also a problem. In purely economic terms, says Italian Brigadier General Carmelo Burgio, it is more attractive for the men to join the Taliban. "They pay more money," he told the New York Times. And despite recent pay raises that brought monthly wages up to as much as $240 (€180), this still isn't enough to feed a family of four. Instead, the low wage level creates a breeding ground for corruption, which is already commonplace, and for the tendency to follow the traditional rules of Afghan culture instead of Western-style laws.

In this culture, nothing is more important than friendship and family loyalties. Brigadier General Khudadad Agah, the head of the training center in Kabul, is familiar with the consequences. "One has a brother who is with the Taliban, another has an uncle," he told the New York Times. "We go on an operation and one brother calls another and they know we're coming."

No one knows how many of the 98,000 police officers trained to date are actually performing their jobs, how many are merely shown on salary lists and how many have been recruited by the Taliban. The infiltration of the Afghan National Police (ANP) by the insurgents is a nightmare for everyone involved. Last November, five British soldiers died in a hail of bullets fired by a police officer that they had been working with.

No Better than Highwaymen

One of the grim experiences of international trainers is that some police academy graduates promptly fall into line with the usual customs and collect bribes at checkpoints. The image of the police, reports one of the German officers, is hardly better than that of the Taliban. "Among the population, they are denounced as highwaymen." According to a United Nations poll, half of all Afghans believe that their law enforcement officials are corrupt.

The nations involved in the training program have come up with various strategies to improve this miserable reputation. "We're trying to train (the Afghan cadets) to respect and relate to people," Italian police officer Massimo Deiana told Newsweek. Those are skills that might be more important to the country's development than marksmanship.

The Germans have decided to accompany the novices on patrol more often than in the past, so that they can intervene if necessary. In relatively safe areas, this means that one Afghan police officer is escorted by four German police officers and four German soldiers.

Extremely Dangerous

The approach is called FDD, or Focused District Development. The idea behind it is to pacify roughly 400 districts, one district at a time. Once the military has secured an area, the police move in and provide the security needed for economic development. But the German trainers in the field believe that the method is extremely dangerous and ineffectual. "FDD means getting killed," they say.

The Americans, one inspector argues, have suffered considerable losses during these patrols. Chahar Dara in Kunduz province, where up to 140 people died in September 2009 when tanker trucks hijacked by Taliban fighters were bombed at the behest of German Colonel Georg Klein, was an FDD project that failed.

As soon as the military has left an area, says the inspector, the Taliban return and make an example of police officers: "They target and kill police officers, as symbols of the hated government in Kabul." The officials at German Federal Police headquarters in Potsdam are aware of this risk. "The Afghan National Police remains the insurgents' main target in all parts of the country," according to an internal report.

'Failure Is Inevitable'

The German Interior Ministry, on the other hand, recently stated: "German police officers working in mixed teams with military police in the context of FDD are not exposed to any elevated threat situation." That assessment, however, appears to be largely at odds with information contained in weekly internal situation reports submitted by police on the ground in Afghanistan. It also seems to be contradicted by a conclusion the government reached on Feb. 10, when it began defining the German military's Afghanistan mission as a "non-international, armed conflict" -- in other words, as a war.

"Until now, the only places where we operated within the FDD framework were safe districts," says a German inspector. But, as he points out, the risk increases dramatically as the officers move farther and farther away from their bases. For this reason, the German police organizations are in a latent conflict with government officials. The Association of German Criminal Police Officers is calling for a suspension of the mentoring program and a "strategy shift," arguing that "continued failure is inevitable." Konrad Freitag, the head of the German police union, sees no room for negotiation. "German police officers have no business being in the field," says Freitag.

Extra pay of €110 a day has kept it relatively easy to find sufficient numbers of volunteers for the job. But reports by returning police officers and a barrage of criticism from the unions are beginning to have an effect. The number of applicants is declining, and the German Federal Police is already looking into ways to reactivate retirees or hand out decorations.

On the Most-Wanted List

But given the messy situation, this will hardly do any good. The German leadership has simply experienced too many negative events. Take, for example, the case of Taliban commander Haji Malik, who regularly visited Police General Ghulam Patang in Mazar-e-Sharif. Malik was on the military list of most-wanted insurgents, and he was believed to be behind many bombing attacks. But Patang refused to arrest the man, despite intervention by the German military. He was highly regarded in the region, the police chief explained, and besides, there was no official arrest warrant.

When the pressure became too great, a typically Afghan solution was agreed to. Malik went to prison voluntarily, as part of a deal under which the military officials had three days to come up with evidence against him. But no evidence was found.

On the fourth day, Malik left the prison as a free man. The Taliban militant warmly embraced his former captors and vowed not to set off any more bombs.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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