KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan – The U.S. Marines were tense looking for bombs buried near a mud compound in this remote farming town in southern Afghanistan. Their new Afghan police colleagues were little help, joking around and sucking on lollipops meant for local kids.
The government had sent the new group of 13 police to live and train the Marines just a few days earlier. Most were illiterate young farmers with no formal training who had been plucked off the streets only weeks before.
Building a capable police force is one of the keys to President Barack Obama's new Afghan strategy. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss how to recruit more Afghan police to meet Washington's goal of expanding the force from about 94,000 today to 160,000 by 2013.
The Marines' experience in Khan Neshin, once a key Taliban stronghold in volatile Helmand province, shows just how difficult the task will be.
The provincial government fired the last group of police assigned to Khan Neshin after more than half of them failed a drug test, prompting them to rebel by throwing rocks at the Marines. When the police weren't smoking drugs, Afghans complained they were taking goods from the bazaar without paying.
"The guys who were here last time put a bad taste in people's mouths by being typical of what people think of the Afghan National Police," said Gunnery Sgt. Randy Scifo, a military policeman from the 1st Marine Division who recently took over responsibility for the police in Khan Neshin.
Scifo said he was surprised the new group showed up without any training, but the police academy on a coalition base near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah was full. The Marines expect to receive more than 20 graduates from the school toward the end of the month and will send this new group to the academy in January. Until then, they are not allowed to carry weapons.
"I want to bring peace and security to my country," said Mohamed Ullah, an 18-year-old with a wispy black beard from Helmand's northern Kajaki district.
The Marines spend their days teaching the recruits the basics of patrolling, sweeping the ground for buried bombs and searching people and vehicles. They prepared for their mission by working with a group of Afghan-Americans in a mock town set up on their base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Scifo said.
But that training didn't prepare the Marines for all the cultural challenges they now face in an area where they are relying on their local counterparts for guidance.
A village elder approached the chief of the new police during a recent patrol to complain that security forces should consult with local leaders before searching people's homes. The incident occurred just after Marines and police entered the compound of a suspected Taliban supporter.
"When you come to search a house, it is insulting because there are women there and it is against our culture and religion," said Fathi Mohammed, a 60-year-old farmer with a long gray beard and black turban.
NATO hopes a well-trained Afghan force will be more effective than international soldiers in winning local trust so that the Taliban cannot return to areas cleared by the coalition.
And the comfort with which the elder approached the Afghan police chief, Lt. Sayed Mohamed, showed an Afghan force can be more effective than the Americans at working with the locals.
The chief is the only member of the new force who has proper training. He was also the only one on joint patrols who did not wear a bulletproof vest or helmet — a risky move, but it made him appear more accessible.
He was constantly approached by Afghans who had problems with the Marines or local government. One man who walked five hours to Khan Neshin to speak with the district governor, only to find him absent. Instead he met Mohammed and hugged him after they spoke.
"I tell the locals that we will change the behavior of the police," Mohammed said. "I'm going to make a place in their hearts for me and my officers."
That could be a daunting task, according to a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace. It said the dramatic growth in the size of the Afghan police force over the past few years has not been coupled with an increase in quality.
"Despite the impressive growth in numbers, the expenditure of $10 billion in international police assistance, and the involvement of the United States, the European Union, and multiple donors, the ANP is riddled with corruption and generally unable to protect Afghan citizens, control crime, or deal with the growing insurgency," said the report.
Scifo said eventually he would like to push the graduates who come to Khan Neshin out to some of the more remote patrol bases where the Taliban are active. But he is not sure whether that will happen during the seven months he is in the country because he doesn't know how capable the recruits will be.
"It's not like I'm ordering from Dominos Pizza and getting exactly what I want," said Scifo.