The Pentagon faces a tough choice: Should it award a new contract to Xe (formerly Blackwater), a company made infamous when its employees killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007, or to DynCorp, a company made infamous in Bosnia in 1999 when some of its employees were caught trafficking young girls for sex?
This billion-dollar contract will be the linchpin of a training program for the Afghan National Police, who are theoretically to be drilled in counterinsurgency tactics that will help defeat the Taliban and bring security to impoverished, war-torn Afghanistan. The program is also considered a crucial component of the Obama administration's plan for turning the war around. Ironically, Xe was poised to win the contract until a successful appeal by DynCorp last week threw the field wide open.
Some people in the U.S. government (and many outside it) believe that this task should not be assigned to private contractors in the first place. Meanwhile, many police experts are certain that it hardly matters which company gets the contract. Like so many before it, the latest training program is doomed from the outset, they believe, because its focus will be on defeating the Taliban rather than fostering community-oriented policing.
The Obama administration is in a fix: it believes that, if it can't put at least 100,000 trained police officers on Afghan streets and into the scattered hamlets that make up the bulk of the country, it won't be able to begin a drawdown of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by the middle of next year.
"The Obama administration's strategy for the Afghan police is to increase numbers, enlarge the 'train and equip' program, and engage the police in the fight against the Taliban," says Robert Perito, an expert on police training at the United States Institute of Peace and the author of a new book, The Police in War. "This approach has not worked in the past, and doing more of the same will not achieve success."
When it comes to police training, the use of private contractors is not unusual -- and neither is failure. North Carolina-based Xe has, in fact, been training the Afghan border police for more than two years, and Virginia-based DynCorp has been doing the same for the Afghan uniformed police for more than seven years now. Nonetheless, the mismanagement of the $7 billion spent on police training over the last eight years, partly attributed to lax U.S. State Department oversight, has left the country of 33 million people with a strikingly ineffective and remarkably corrupt police force. Its terrible habits and reputation have led the inhabitants of many Afghan communities to turn to the Taliban for security.
Of the training programs run by the NATO Training Mission out of Camp Eggers in Kabul, the Afghan capital, only DynCorp's component is even fully staffed. The company supplies 782 former American police officers to dozens of training centers and military bases scattered around the country to work with the U.S. military and with European Union police mentors. Altogether there are supposed to be 4,000 of these trainers, but NATO estimates that it has only half of the staffers it needs.
In a desperate attempt to offset this shortage of trainers, Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar has proposed the dispatching of 3,000 police officers annually to Jordan and Turkey for nine months of instruction abroad.
In May 2009, I visited several training sites for the Afghan security forces in and around Kabul. Major Joey Schneider of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan escorted me around a recruitment center at the Kabul Central Police Command. There, dozens of raw recruits from Afghan villages were being tested for ever-present drugs before induction into a fast-track program to double the 5,000 police officers in Kabul before the August elections.
"After three weeks in the Kabul Security Acceleration Program, these men will get a badge, uniform, and gun and be sent out to patrol," Schneider explained. Asked if that was really sufficient, he assured me that the new police officers would be given an additional five weeks of intensive post-election training by DynCorp contractors and international military mentors.
Three months later, a report for the European Commission written by Scott Chilton and Tim Bremmers, two police experts, in collaboration with Eckart Schiewek, a senior United Nations official, concluded that this approach was a disaster-in-the-making. It was, they claimed, causing an "absolute irresponsible downgrading" of the police force. "Our view is that the spiraling increase in police deaths and wounding will further increase with quick-fix recruiting, poor training, and equipping."
Absurd as it may sound, this program is considered better conceived than many of the older training programs the Afghan government launched with U.S. funding. For example, a 2006 attempt to induct 11,000 villagers into a new organization dubbed the Afghan National Auxiliary Police -- with only 10 days of training from DynCorp and international military mentors -- was a complete and abysmal failure. One-third of the trainees in certain southern provinces, given a gun and a uniform, were never seen again. Two years later, in September 2008, the project was terminated.
A 2008 report by the well-respected International Crisis Group pointed out that such rapid-induction programs had the perverse effect of actually lowering the average literacy rate and effectiveness of the Afghan police force -- and that's without even considering the security problems created by those drop-outs with guns.