James Fergusson: A force divided by unreliable loyalties

No one claimed it would be easy to train up a police force capable of keeping order in Afghanistan. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, claimed recently that the force now numbers "almost 100,000" – an important milestone towards the target of a combined army and police force of 300,000 by 2012 – but that may be wishful thinking. Attrition through desertion and death in the line of duty, as well as the phenomenon of "ghost" recruits entered on to the books by corrupt commanders, meant that a year ago there were some 82,000 men on the payroll, but only an estimated 60,000 actually working, according to Nato. No one knows how many there really are.

The new ANP is supposed to enable the West to leave Afghanistan, yet on present form it may be delaying our departure. Earlier this month in Nangahar province, an argument over grazing rights erupted between two Pashtun tribes, the Ali Shir Khel and the Mahmand. Such disputes are traditionally resolved by a jirga of tribal elders, a dialogue process that can take many days but which always ends peacefully. In this case the dispute turned violent before the jirga could be convened. Gun battles left as many as two dozen dead. According to Jalaluddin Shinwari, an official dispatched from Kabul to oversee the jirga, some of the local ANP belonged to the Ali Shir Khel and had armed their tribal cousins; in self-defence, the Mahmand had allegedly obtained weapons from the Taliban. "The ANP is supposed to be loyal to Kabul," said Mr Shinwari. "In this instance, they were partisan."

Ironically, Mr Shinwari had been given a bodyguard of 40 policemen. They were a disconsolate bunch who complained about their guns – east European copies of AK-47s that they said were prone to jamming. Their training, they said, had lasted three months – a period that under current plans may be cut to as little as six weeks. They made it clear they were only in the job for the $200-a-month salary. One confided that if there was any trouble on this mission, he and three of his mates had already decided to "disappear".

James Fergusson is the author of 'A Million Bullets' (Bantam)