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US trainers shape new 'face' for Kandahar police

world Updated: Jun 08, 2010 10:41 IST
AFP
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Sandwiched between an orchard and a collection of decrepit homes, Afghan police post number six is a familiar haunt of US trainers trying to gain the upper hand in the battle for Kandahar.

Driving up in heavily armoured MRAP trucks built to withstand the lethal bombs planted by the Taliban across this provincial capital, American military police head inside the modest one-storey building.

"We are here to make sure that they are engaging the people, that they are proactive," said US Sergeant Gary Woodruff, whose tour of Afghanistan is his fourth overseas deployment, after Kosovo and two missions in Iraq.

"We want to put a nice face on them, make them stop acting tough, like a lawless organisation," he said.

The US-led NATO force in Afghanistan is undertaking one of its most ambitious counter-insurgency operations in the nine-year Afghan war.

Many of the 30,000 troops President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan late last year are heading to Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement and a hotbed of bombings, assassinations and lawlessness.

The objective is to help Afghan forces restore government authority in Kandahar, a province of more than a million inhabitants according to the Central Statistics Organisation of Afghanistan.

This is terrain where insurgents and criminals have gained ground since a US-led invasion in 2001 brought down the Taliban regime. Any stain on the reputation of the police plays right into the insurgents' hands.

"Initially when we first got there for the mentoring mission, a lot of locals didn't like the ANP," said one US intelligence officer who has spent the last year in Kandahar, referring to the Afghan National Police.

"They thought they were corrupt, that the ANP robbed them etc. So they had a really bad name for themselves... But over a year of mentoring they have improved and the perception of locals has improved."

NATO operations are focused on districts surrounding Kandahar that are used as a base for the insurgency, particularly Zhari in the west and Arghandab in the north. They are also aimed at cutting insurgents' access to the city.

In the city itself the focus is on redoubling efforts to reinforce the under-strength and poorly trained police.

Long underpaid in comparison with the army, Afghan police nonetheless got significant pay rises in 2009, aimed at discouraging them from succumbing to bribery and corruption.

On patrol, Woodruff's men let the Afghan police sweep ahead into the narrow lanes between high, sand-coloured walls.

Lagging behind and surrounded by curious children, the Americans watch attentively from the sidelines.

Next to a dusty track, Woodruff points out a gaping hole half full of rubbish that had been the site of an improvised explosive device (IED), the weapon of choice for insurgents, which the police had got to before it could add to the death toll.

"Somebody tipped off the ANP. If the people are unhappy, they won't do it. It's all about keeping these people happy. You've got to keep everybody on your side. That's the whole hearts and minds game," said Woodruff.

In the city, commanders are determined to avoid using force as far as possible in order not to push the population into the arms of the insurgents.

But experts admit that this "battle of perceptions" is complex.

Since spring, the Taliban have assassinated dozens of prominent personalities in Kandahar, and have launched repeated rocket attacks on its military base.

"I don't think they're going to leave the city or lie low," said Stephen Biddle, of the Centre for Foreign Relations in Washington, predicting "lots of IEDs and assassinations of government officials and collaborators".

"But there is a hope that the sheer density of security forces will deter the Taliban from contesting control of the city."

At a NATO base in town, Canadians are trying to drum the basics into Afghan police on a six-week course -- namely target practice, how to conduct searches and the constitution.

"As soon as the police get hired, they get a uniform and get sent out... They have no clue about human rights, they don't know how to hold a weapon and most of them are illiterate," said Canadian supervisor Amir Butt.

In front of him, a dozen Afghans in dirty blue shirts with plastic AK-47s search a replica home built for training purposes.

A short distance away, gunfire punctures the air from target practice.

"The Afghan people will be much safer when these guys get out of training," said Amit.

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