By SUSAN ZIELINSKI
The contrast couldn’t be more stark between the RCMP, a national symbol of pride for Canadians, and Afghanistan’s national police force.
RCMP Insp. Ray Noble, who spent most of 2008 as a police reform co-ordinator in Afghanistan, said the stigma attached to being an officer with the Afghan police is huge.
“Policemen in many areas of Afghanistan are considered the lowest of the low. They’re considered parasites.”
Noble was in the country to help design a training program for police in Kabul.
Very often village elders volunteer people unfit for almost any job, aged 18 to 60, and tell them to report to the police station.
“The elder will say: you, you and you. You’re policemen now.”
“We had people showing up with one arm, one eye, wanting to be policemen,” said Noble, who worked for the RCMP’s international peace operations branch as part of the American-led police reform coalition.
But the stigma is not the only reason people don’t want to join.
Out of about 72,500 Afghan officers, 1,109 were murdered on duty in 2007. In 2008, over 1,300 were killed.
Training includes paramilitary tactics. Police are armed with pistols, AK-47 assault rifles, machine-guns and grenade launchers.
“The police are very much a target because they are not able to defend themselves as the military are so they’re the target of choice for criminals and insurgents.”
“The first police general I worked with in Kabul survived three bombings and 14 assassination attempts. Seventeen of his bodyguards had been killed over the years.”
In the 12 months that Noble was in Afghanistan, he experienced two bombings in Kabul, where suicide bombers or vehicle-backed explosives driven at a target are the bombs of choice.
“One was about 800 metres away. The vehicle hit was pretty much destroyed. Both occupants in that vehicle survived, but six civilians were killed and 22 were injured. Twelve or 15 vehicles were also heavily damaged.
“The second was probably within 75, 100 metres. I didn’t get injured. But I was in an armoured Suburban and the impact was enough to lift it up and drop it — the weight of a Suburban plus a 3,000-pound armoured package.”
Noble travelled off the training base and through Kabul five days a week and it was very common to see buildings peppered with bullet holes. There are so many amputees from landmines planted by Soviets, who occupied the country from 1979 to 1988, that vendors sold each shoe separately.
“The rights are over here. The lefts are over there. A lot of people only need one.”
In a country fraught with violence, police deal mostly with kidnapping, narcotics, protecting supply convoys from being ambushed, and threats to critical infrastructure.
Police try to keep a lid on crime mostly by manning security checkpoints.
Noble said reforming the police system meant starting with the bare basics like setting up proper personnel files, complete with fingerprints and retinal scans, in a country where authorization from village elders is as close as people get to birth certificates.
“With the amount of terrorism and insurgent activity in Afghanistan, the fact that there are no good records of who’s who, it’s a real benefit to anyone who is trying to disrupt services. It’s easy to assume another identity.”
Building accountability into the system is also essential and Noble said the attitude towards the job is getting better.
“Where I saw improvement was in individuals, where individuals became visibly more committed to the process and became noticeably more competent in the duties assigned to them.”
He said one of the best things he did was allow a colonel involved in training enrolment to take responsibility for his failure to get enough officers to attend class.
“That was a very difficult position to put him in. Failure is a good way to become a persona non grata instantly.”
After that experience, the colonel always fulfilled his duties.
Noble said building commitment and skills among more and more officers will take time and that’s why the international community has to be prepared to support the system for an lengthy period. Once 50 per cent of police are committed to do the work, they will become an organizational driving force for “visible, rapid change.”
“My favourite analogy is a teeter-totter. Stick a elephant on one side and balance it with kindergarten kids. The first five or six kindergarten kids don’t move the elephant. It’s not until you get a whole pile of them that it starts wobbling a little bit and lifts up. That’s kind of what’s going to happen.”
For now, tribal and family still rule Afghan society, as opposed to governmental alliances. Change won’t be easy in a country where widespread, culturally-driven corruption remains strong, he said.
“You have to recognize when somebody has no income, they will do what it takes to survive and corruption is part of that. It’s a survival tool.”
“Afghanistan’s GDP is a fraction of what its needs are. It’s been a wartorn country with one occupier following the next occupier. Corruption is the industry.”
Noble said one of the measures of how well a society is working is the ability of its police force to provide peace and order, which is needed to deliver education to improve the lives of citizens.
“When you talk about some of the factors in the ability of a country to function and take over things, education is huge.”