Slaughter raises Afghan fears of the enemy within

Kim Sengupta,Helmand
Wednesday 04 November 2009 14:14

The bomb had sliced the pick-up truck in half, the cab flung 20 yards down the road, the flatbed at the back twisted and torn into an unrecognizable shape. Five policemen travelling in the vehicle were killed, parts of their bodies ending up on roadside trees.

The charred wreckage had been gathered together and put on display outside the police station at Nad-e-Ali as a reminder of how the force had lost far higher numbers from their ranks than either Western troops or the Afghan army - cannon fodder in this savage war against the Taliban.

“Our transport do not have any protection against bombs, the enemy are better armed than us, our families live here and they get intimidated, and my men often don’t get paid” said Captain Haji Laljan . “Yes, some of them go over to the other side and join the Taliban we are aware of this. We try to stop it, but it will happen.”

Today’s killings in Nad-e-Ali ,the joint highest death toll for British soldiers in the Afghan conflict, was carried out by one of Captain Laljan’s men, probably with the help of others in the rank, raising fears in the ranks of the troops that they cannot turn their backs on the men who are supposed to be allies against the insurgents.

The Afghan security forces are the key in the West’s exit strategy from this bloody and increasingly unpopular war. The police, in particular, are supposed to be the lynchpin of a safe civic society. As part of his grand strategy to turn the tide of this war, the US general commanding Nato forces, Stanley McChrystal, has called for the size of the force to be increased from the current 82,000 to 160,000.

But the police are poorly equipped and paid, badly trained with many members steeped in corruption using their uniforms and guns for extortion of the local population. Many deal in drugs or are themselves addicts. Now it is the rising prevalence of police officers taking part in attacks against Western troops and officials which has raised deep worries about just how much the force has been infiltrated by the Taliban.

Four weeks ago a policeman in Wardak province opened fire on American soldiers out on patrol, killing two of them before fleeing. Last year, over a period of less than a month, Afghan police twice attacked US forces, killing two soldiers and wounding three others. Last week men in police uniforms forced their way into a guest house in Kabul and murdered five UN election workers. They were not members of the force, but had police issue radio transmitters and detailed information on the target of their attack, which, say investigators, could only have come from official sources.

It is in the Helmand frontline, in areas like Nad-e-Ali, that there is the most apprehension that police officers may switch sides - either due to intimidation or money or religious and ideological commitment.

Unlike the Afghan army, which deploys its members away from home areas, the police have to live and work in communities which has its share of Talibs. At the same time, the police have access to the camps of their mentors, British and other Nato forces and share accommodation at checkpoints.

Sitting in the UK headquarters in Nad-e-Ali, Lieutenant Mohammed Shakir said “I do not care if they try to frighten me. But in some cases the terrorists will threaten them with doing harm to the children, to the parents, and say you must help us if you want them to be safe. And sometimes you see this is working.

“There has been a problem with opium, but that is the case in many parts of the country. We have a strict policy against drugs, but whether it is enforced or not depends on the commander. We have a good commander here.”

On average an Afghan policeman gets $120 a month. Due to corruption and inefficiency in the system they often go unpaid, or have some of their wages taken by senior officers. Private Ghour Khan said “ It is not a lot of money for risking your life every day and then sometimes other people take their cuts or you have to wait a long time to get the money. The Taliban pay their fighters and they pay them on time, so there is temptation. What we need to do is get rid of the corruption.”

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