Taliban preys on Afghanistan's corrupt police force

As troops leave, secret papers reveal extent of bribery among Afghan officers

The Afghan police charged with maintaining security in their own country as coalition troops begin to pull out within months are still "endemically corrupt" and riven with problems including nepotism and drug abuse, internal government documents have revealed.

Foreign Office (FCO) papers obtained by The Independent on Sunday disclose official concerns about the fate of Afghanistan and its chances of holding the Taliban at bay, if its leaders fail to "root out corruption" throughout the ranks of the Afghan National Police (ANP).

A confidential report on the performance of the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP), the nation's major law-enforcement body, observed in October: "Unless radical change is introduced to improve the actual and perceived integrity and legitimacy of officers within the AUP, then the organisation will continue to provide an ineffective and tainted service to citizens … for decades to come."

The assessments, in a series of official FCO documents, lay bare the continuing anxieties over the war-torn country's capacity to function as a democratic state when international troops begin withdrawing from their combat role in the country in 2013. The vast majority are scheduled to be out by the end of 2014.

The details come only days after David Cameron said during a visit to Afghanistan that British troops could be withdrawn even more quickly than planned, because local security forces were "doing better than expected". The Prime Minister announced that UK numbers would be nearly halved to 5,200 next year, as part of the withdrawal plan.

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, yesterday accepted that widespread corruption was "a bitter reality" Ω but claimed it was largely fuelled by the countries funding his government and security forces.

"The part of this corruption that is in our offices is a small part: that is bribes," the President said in a speech on national television. "The other part of corruption, the large part, is hundreds of millions of dollars that are not ours. We shouldn't blame ourselves for that. That part is from others and imposed on us."

However, the FCO reports a catalogue a series of home-grown problems with Afghanistan's police, which could hinder the country's development in future years.

In October, a report on the AUP in Helmand province questioned the chances of achieving the police's stated goal of "eliminating corruption all over the country".

The report observed: "Whilst this is undeniably a laudable aspiration, the reality of the situation in Afghanistan is that corruption is endemic; woven into the very fabric of society and in particular public institutions. This fact renders the objective unachievable, with some commentators arguing that the issue is generational and cannot therefore be dealt with effectively for many years to come."

The report called for a complaints procedure and action against "patronage and nepotism issues in the appointment of senior officers".

It added: "The continued absence of a reliable system for recruiting and promoting AUP officers will see the status quo being maintained, where people motivated by personal gain and/or harbouring nefarious intent have access to senior and influential roles within the service."

Another FCO paper, on the "Rule of Law in Afghanistan Post-2014", stated that the justice sector was improving, but it added: "Anti-corruption efforts are off-track, with political interference notable in high-level prosecutions."

ANP officers, who are usually at the front line of the security forces' dealings with the public, have to endure lower pay and fatality rates twice as high as their counterparts in the Afghan army. But one paper, entitled "Changes in ANP", observed that: "The Afghan police suffer from many problems. Of the 82,000 nominally serving on the force, around 60,000 are believed to be working. We estimate over 70 per cent are illiterate, and drug abuse is an issue."

The rate of drug use among ANP officers was estimated at 9 per cent, compared to a national average of 8 per cent.

Another report, assessing the ANP's progress, reported that the force had "shortcomings in a number of areas", including corruption and theft. It added: "Concerns remain about corruption, criminal activity, drug-use and the lack of a clear 'end state' for the force. The ANP is viewed negatively by the population, with multiple reports of illegal taxation, extortion and other serious crimes, as well as drug addiction."

The Labour MP Sandra Osborne, a member of the Defence Select Committee, said the Afghan police were "hated". She added: "It will take years for a fully legitimate police force to come about, if ever. Eventually it will be up to the Afghan government, and that is the real problem, as is widely recognised Ω the lack of a stable political settlement."

Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, said: "Prime Minister Cameron is declaring success prematurely. There is little reason to believe that the ANP will be significantly more effective or less corrupt in 2014."

An FCO spokeswoman said the development of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was "a significant achievement". She added: "It is because of the increasing strength, confidence and capability of the ANSF that the transition process is gaining momentum. As a result, UK forces will be able to move from mentoring at battalion level to brigade level by the end of 2013, thereby allowing a significant troop drawdown, as announced by the Prime Minister this week."