Insurgents send mortar message

It took the U.S.-led coalition $106 million to build Afghanistan’s largest police training centre, while insurgents needed only a single mortar shell to show the challenges facing the Afghan security forces.

MAIDAN SHAR, Afghanistan — It took the U.S.-led coalition $106 million to build Afghanistan’s largest police training centre, while insurgents needed only a single mortar shell to show the challenges facing the Afghan security forces.

The round crashed down and exploded within the grounds of the facility during its inauguration Wednesday, sending panicked police recruits crawling across the floor of a meeting hall and prompting bodyguards to bundle one of Afghanistan’s vice-presidents and the government minister in charge of police forces into helicopters and flee.

No one was hurt, but the attack pointed to the serious gaps in security, as NATO spends billions to build a modern police force out of a recruitment pool that is almost entirely illiterate and remains terrified of Taliban attacks even after graduation.

“We’re dealing with a lost generation,” said U.S. Maj. Gen. James Mallory, who helps oversee NATO’s training mission.

Also Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed eight people in an attack on a governor’s office in the northeast and another killed three civilians in a province along the Pakistani border.

The U.S. Congress has set aside nearly $30 billion since the start of the Afghan war to develop the country’s army and police force. By the end of this year, NATO estimates it will have spent $20 billion in two years — most of it U.S. money — toward the same goal as the coalition prepares for a planned 2014 withdrawal from the country.

The National Police Training Center in Wardak, where the walls are still covered with fresh paint and new riot helmets sit on shelves, is part of the coalition plan to meet its goal of having about 157,000 policemen on the street before it leaves. The centre will be capable of teaching classes of 3,000 recruits at a time with French trainers and Afghan instructors. The police hope to have 134,000 officers by October, up from 115,584 at the end of last year.

But training starts at the absolute basics, as nearly all Afghan recruits come into the class illiterate — “a lost generation” born in Afghan’s decades of conflicts, Mallory said.

Col. Abdul Khalil, the training centre’s Afghan commander, said the lack of education is to blame for officers shirking their responsibilities or abandoning their posts.

“They don’t know what they want. They don’t know how to overcome the challenges,” Khalil said.

Planning appears to be another problem. A few hours before Wednesday’s ceremony, Afghan officers approached a French trainer and asked if they could have uniforms. As Vice-President Mohammed Karim Khalili and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi spoke at a meeting hall in the training centre, some of the more than 500 recruits dozed off in the stale air.

The deafening blast of the exploding mortar shell soon shook the building, as recruits ducked for cover and bodyguards for NATO and government officials shouted at them to stay in their seats. Gunshots rang out after the attack.

The bodyguards rushed the high-level entourage into a hardened shelter before evacuating them on helicopters.

It was unclear if Khalili, who is from Wardak, was the intended target of the attack, but the mortar round seemed to have been aimed at the building where he had just finished delivering an address. The area has seen increasing attacks by insurgents as the Taliban press a spring campaign against Afghan and NATO forces.

In one of Wednesday’s suicide attacks, the bomber blew himself up about 220 yards (200 metres) from the office of Governor Azizul Rahman Tawab in the northeast Kapisa province, provincial spokesman Halim Ayar said. The blast killed four police officers and four civilians, he said.

The Interior Ministry gave a slightly different toll, putting the number of dead at seven, two of them policemen.

The government ministry called the attack cowardly but said it would not “weaken the determination of the Afghan National Police.”

The other suicide bomber killed three civilians, including a 13-year-old boy, in an attack at the front gate of an administrative building in Paktia province, a restive area of eastern Afghanistan, said district chief Allah Gul Ahmadzai.

Also Wednesday, in the southern province of Kandahar, NATO and Afghan troops killed 14 insurgents, the governor’s office said. Nine were killed after crossing the Pakistani border, while five were killed while trying to plant roadside bombs, the governor’s office said.

A NATO service member died Wednesday in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan, the coalition announced. Twenty-eight international service members have died in Afghanistan so far in June. A total of 234 have been killed this year.

After the mortar attack on the Wardak training centre, pickup trucks with heavy machine-guns and armoured SUVs raced up and down the camp’s paved streets. Helicopters searched overhead for the fighters who launched the mortar, which likely came from the towering mountain range near the centre used by insurgents in repeated attacks.

“Wardak has a history of mortar attacks,” said Canadian Maj. Gen. Stuart Beare, before walking under guard to a waiting helicopter. “

The Afghan police have work ahead of them.”