Corruption, desertion and drug abuse within the Afghan police are threatening its ability to take over the fight against the Taliban and the UK's chances of an exit from the country, government documents show.
A series of internal Foreign Office papers obtained by The Independent on Sunday lay bare the deep concerns of British officials over the standard of recruits to the Afghan National Police (ANP), ranging from high casualty rates and illiteracy to poor vetting and low pay.
The memos, which warn that building an effective police force "will take many years", also reveal how non-existent "ghost recruits" may account for up to a quarter of the purported strength of the police force, often the front line against the Taliban insurgency. The "attrition rate" among police officers – including losses caused by deaths, desertion and dismissals, often due to positive drug tests – is as high as 60 per cent in Helmand province.
Helmand is repeatedly identified as among the worst areas for a series of problems. The documents reveal that half the latest batch of recruits in the province "initially tested positive for narcotics". British officials also raised concerns over the ANP's involvement in bribery, collusion with the drug trade, intimidation of schoolchildren and "limited engagement with the community". In a dramatic insight into the frustration felt by British officials in the country, one suggested arresting the worst offenders and handing them over to prosecutors, to "make an example of them".
The alarm over the capacity of the police raises profound questions over the coalition strategy for pacifying Afghanistan and eventually withdrawing from the country. At the international conference on Afghanistan in January, Gordon Brown pledged to more than double "military mentoring teams" for the police as part of a wider Nato plan to increase Afghan security forces to 300,000.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman yesterday accepted that the challenges to police reform were "significant and long term", but insisted that progress was being made. She said: "We are aware of widespread criticisms of the ANP, some of which are deeply concerning. The UK is fully committed to police reform to ensure a professional and accountable police force."
In the past, ministers have carefully conceded problems with the creation of a huge force, but in recent months they have pointed to progress being made. The Prime Minister emphasised the importance of ANP development during a visit to Helmand province earlier this month, when he toured a police training centre in Lashkar Gah and confirmed plans to send 150 new police and army trainers to train the ANP. The Americans have ploughed more than £4bn into the campaign to establish Afghanistan's first viable police force.
"The Government has continually told us that the Afghan National Police force has been improving, but these documents suggest that even their own staff have not been convinced about this," said the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey. "Establishing the police force is a critical development for the coalition in Afghan. The longer it takes, the longer coalition forces will be there."
A dispatch from the British embassy in Kabul only four months ago underlined the continuing problems in producing a fit, efficient and untainted force, eight years after the Taliban were ousted from power. The "eGram" warned: "Leadership, particularly at middle ranks, needs to be thoroughly reformed and training improved. Vetting of recruits, often taken on the word of a village head, needs to be raised and drug testing made compulsory. Attrition needs to be addressed through less use as cannon fodder and greater pay in high-threat areas."
A month earlier, a grim briefing prepared for a UK official declared: "The scale of the challenge is immense. Building an independent, professional and accountable police force will take many years and require considerable international support."
Documents obtained under freedom of information legislation point to the Afghan government's failure to support efforts to establish a viable police force. However, a report, "Policing in Afghanistan: What Now and What Next?", also pointed the finger at foreign governments trying to resolve the nation's problems. It said: "International pressure to increase police recruitment has led to a focus on quantity rather than quality. Because police challenges are huge, there is a tendency to look for quick solutions. The risk is short-termism and a failure to develop a coherent and consistent approach to police reform."
But it was operational issues, notably the fact that so many recruits tested positive for drugs, that dominated discussions about the state of the police force, with poor literacy levels blamed for the high number of positive tests. A "situation report" from last November revealed that half of the latest batch of recruits taken on in June had initially tested positive for narcotics.
A briefing note prepared for Mr Brown after an Afghan policeman shot dead five British soldiers in Helmand last November said that all ANP in the province were subsequently "re-registered and drugs tested". The memo added: "Approximately 10 per cent have been rejected following failed opiate tests." As recently as last October, an official at the British embassy in Kabul was reporting suspicions that "up to 25 per cent" of the ANP's 82,000 strength could be "ghost police" – increasing concerns that corrupt local commanders were pocketing salaries of non-existent officers.
An independent report into corruption, commissioned by the Foreign Office, found evidence that police manning checkpoints were imposing "nuisance taxes" on travellers. Last September, a UK official in the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah told a colleague: "It would be somewhat of a luxury to be working with ANP who are not corrupt. However, if you have [a senior official] strongly committed to addressing this, then one thing he could do is to lead by example and/or make an example of some ANP who are particularly bad by arresting them and referring them to the ANP prosecutor."
An Foreign Office spokeswoman said yesterday: "Police who have undergone training are recognised by the Afghan population as being of a higher calibre. New vetting procedures are in place to address issues with the integrity of the ANP, and we are working to further strengthen them as part of our overall efforts to support improvements within the ANP."