The Sunday Times, February 28, 2013
Afghan police force “drug-addled that kidnaps locals and sells its weapons”
Afghanistan says it can manage when Nato pulls out, but Ben Anderson finds a drug-addled police force that kidnaps locals and sells its weapons
By Ben Anderson
Handing over security operations in Afghanistan to the Afghans is “proceeding very well”, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, said on a recent visit to Helmand. “The Afghans are developing capabilities faster than we expected.” He was echoing the unbridled optimism of many British and American officials.
Having just returned from five weeks in Sangin — the most violent district in Afghanistan’s most violent province — I cannot see any reason for such optimism.
The police in particular are behaving so badly that it would not be a surprise to see local people welcoming a return of the Taliban, seeing them as a bulwark against spectacular corruption and violence, just as they did when the Taliban first swept to power.
The police, often illiterate and drug-addicted, use child soldiers, kidnap civilians, fire indiscriminately and sell the weapons and fuel that we have paid for. Police commanders routinely abduct and sexually abuse young boys.
That this is happening in Sangin is particularly galling when so many have died there — 109 British troops and many more Afghan civilians — so that the Afghan government can operate in areas previously controlled by the Taliban.
Today the patrol bases that coalition troops fought so hard to establish have largely been abandoned. The 500 US marines in Sangin stay on the relatively safe forward operating base. Most spend their time lifting weights and counting down the days until they can come home. For them the war is already over.
Only two teams of 18 US marines leave the main base to “advise” the Afghan army and police. The police advisory team covers 34 patrol bases: its members visit each base once every three weeks on average. Some visits last about 20 minutes, some 4-5 hours. Either way, the teams are advising, not training. “As an adviser you’re a dog with a lot of bark and not a lot of bite,” says Major Bill Steuber, who is in charge of the police advisory team. “If we were to shut down all of their corruption schemes you would render them ineffective.”
Steuber is a bear of a man, square-jawed and with the sides of his head shaved almost bald. He seems incapable of lying or even using euphemisms. When he explains what he has to contend with every day, he flinches at the sound of his own words. “It [the police corruption] is vast, everything from skimming ammunition off their supplies to skimming fuel off their shipments. There’s false imprisonment — they’ll take people: during an engagement they’ll just wrap everyone up; then they’ll wait for the families to come in and pay them money to release them.”
He also says the police regularly sell ammunition and weapons in the local bazaar, including rocket-propelled grenades. So, weapons we have paid for could well be ending up in the hands of the Taliban.
While Steuber attempts to influence the police leadership, his men check on the patrol bases dotted all over Sangin. At one the marines spell out the new reality to a police commander: “You have to learn to operate as if we weren’t here,” says Lieutenant Sharp. “You have to learn to walk out on your own.” The two men sit on a rug in the middle of the police base. Behind them is a huge marijuana plant. Nearby two policemen lean on each other, sometimes snoozing, barely aware of what’s going on around them.
The police commander wants the marines to raid a factory making improvised explosive devices and he is annoyed that they won’t do it. “If you don’t help us then we’d be crazy to patrol and kill ourselves and see our friends killed,” he snaps. “You came here for our Afghanistan, to build it for us. But the way in which you are building it is to ignore the enemy and the IEDs I show you.”
He also complains that he has only 10 AK-47s for 20 men and one useless PKM machinegun without a barrel. He eventually agrees to come up with a plan to raid the IED factory within five days. Two days later the marines are told he has taken unannounced leave.
At a checkpoint the marines tell the police to fill some sandbags to fortify their base. Some of the policemen are so high they can’t stand up straight. Snot drips from the nose of one; he swats it away and then looks at his hand, trying to work out what it is. I’d seen one of them smoking a large joint when we arrived, but I’m sure these men are on heroin. They eventually get bored with filling sandbags and pull over some civilians to finish the work.
Then someone fires three shots at the nearby watchtower. Two policemen, who are on the roof of the watchtower rather than in it, fire back, even though they haven’t seen the shooter and there are civilians nearby. A huge marine sergeant-major is soon towering over the elf-like deputy commander, asking: “What are you shooting at?”
“Taliban,” says the policeman, through the marines’ translator, “in those gardens.” He is pointing, but also laughing. He starts making childlike shooting noises, jabbing his finger up at the marine as if it were a pistol.
“Show me the Taliban!” yells the marine. “Professionals don’t do that. Professionals make sure they know their target and what lies beyond their target.”
The policeman clearly does not understand the problem. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “The civilians are also Taliban.”
The marine continues trying to teach him: “Professionals don’t just shoot out into the crowd. You’re supposed to be professionals.” The translator has stopped translating because it is clearly pointless.
A few weeks later one of the policemen from the same base was shot in the back. The US medics who saved him found a bag of heroin in his pocket.
There are much bigger problems. Every base has at least one “chai boy”, who usually looks between 11 and 15 years old. They serve tea and sometimes wear uniforms but this may be to hide the real reason for their presence. Police commanders often see it as their right to abduct a local boy from his family and keep him as a servant and a sex slave. Steuber nods towards a commander who has entered the police headquarters car park. “You’ve got a patrol base commander who we know is kidnapping boys and sexually molesting them.”
The problem is widespread. In the past five weeks four boys have been shot while trying to escape police commanders, three of them fatally. One boy was shot in the face. “Try working with child molesters, working with people who are robbing people, murdering them. It wears on you after a while,” Steuber said.
After the fourth boy was shot, Steuber confronted the deputy police chief and urged him to act. The deputy chief admitted his officers were abusing boys, but claimed the boys went to the patrol bases willingly. He eventually agreed to carry out Steuber’s plan — turning up at patrol bases at dawn and arresting the commanders who kept young boys. But two hours later he cancelled the operation and, to this day, the chai boys have not been freed. These incidents are common and the Afghans know it.
General John Allen, the outgoing commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, was even more upbeat than Hammond in describing what we are leaving behind: “Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like and we should not shrink from using these words.”
The Afghan government says it is fighting corruption and that the police and army are ready and willing to take full responsibility for the security of their country.
What we are actually leaving behind is an uncertain and terrifying future for the Afghans. The trip to Sangin was my ninth in the past six years. It was also the most worrying because it was the clearest glimpse I have had of what that future looks like.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are leaving not because we have achieved our goals, but because we have given up on them.
Ben Anderson’s film, Mission Accomplished? Secrets of Helmand, will be broadcast on Panorama on BBC1 at 8.30pm tomorrow
Originally published on Feb. 24, 2013
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