AYNAK, Afghanistan – Afghan villagers had complained to the U.S. Marines for days: The police are the problem, not the Taliban. They steal from villagers and beat them. Days later, the Marines learned firsthand what the villagers meant.
As about 150 Marines and Afghan soldiers approached the police headquarters in the Helmand River town of Aynak, the police fired four gunshots at the combined force. No larger fight broke out, but once inside the headquarters the Marines found a raggedy force in a decrepit mud-brick compound that the police used as an open-pit toilet.
The meeting was tense. Some police were smoking pot. Others loaded their guns in a threatening manner near the Marines.
The U.S. troops ousted the police two days later and installed a better trained force they had brought with them on their recently launched operation into southern Helmand. The original force was sent away for several weeks of training the U.S. is conducting across Afghanistan to professionalize the country's police.
But the encounter, witnessed last week by The Associated Press, highlights one of the largest problems facing the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan in the face of an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency: the need for competent, trustworthy police.
Afghans across the country complain bitterly about the country's police, whose junior ranks earn only about $150 a month. Police pad their salaries by demanding bribes at checkpoints or kickbacks to investigate complaints, and police in opium poppy-growing regions turn a blind eye to drug smuggling for a cut of the profits, many Afghans complain.
The role of the local police is especially sensitive here in Helmand province, the center of the lucrative opium poppy industry and a Taliban stronghold. A main goal of the ongoing U.S. military operation is to restore Afghan government control — which requires a disciplined police force that commands public respect.
Over the past year, the Interior Ministry has tried to overhaul the police, and dozens of corrupt officials have been fired. The U.S. has faced similar problems in Iraq, where years of effort have so far failed to produce a police force with the same level of skill and professionalism as the Iraqi army.
Some 4,000 of the 21,000 additional troops President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan this year will train Afghan police and soldiers, a belated boost to a lingering problem. U.S. commanders have long complained of a shortage of trainers.
As Capt. Drew Schoenmaker pulled his men out of Aynak's police compound after that first meeting, the company commander told his Marines to "watch my 6 o'clock" — his back — in case the police again opened fire.
"I don't trust a single one of them," Schoenmaker muttered quietly.
"We had some complaints about the police force and the ways they did business," Schoenmaker said later. "As I met the police force for the first time, there was an air of tension between us. We had received shots from their vicinity that day."
The police commander told Schoenmaker his men had fired on the U.S.-Afghan force because he didn't know who they were.
Two days later, the Marines made a second visit to the police headquarters. Schoenmaker's commander told him to kick the police out and install the new backup force. U.S. fighter aircraft patrolled overhead in case a fight broke out.
A Marine radio operator sat outside the compound as the police packed up. He got a report from a nearby unit that villagers complained that the police had just stolen jewelry and money from them. The ragtag force tore out of the compound, speeding their green, U.S.-bought Ford Rangers toward Helmand's provincial capital, just 10 miles to the north.
Police corruption has long been a problem in Afghanistan. A 2007 International Crisis Group report entitled "Reforming Afghanistan's Police" found that Afghans often view the police "more as a source of fear than of security." It said ending corruption was critical if police were to provide a "professional, consistent service to citizens."
The Marines landed in southern Helmand earlier this month as part of the largest Marine operation in Afghanistan since 2001. Within hours of their arrival bands of villagers told the Americans that the local police force was a bigger problem than the Taliban. Sgt. Bill Cahir, who heard some of the complaints, saw the candor as a good sign.
"It was encouraging that a big group was willing to sit down and talk with us," Cahir said. "And they were pretty candid talking about the corrupt local police."
One villager in Aynak, Ghulam Mohammad, who appeared to be in his mid-20s, said that villagers were happy with the Afghan army, but not the police. "We can't complain to the police because they take money and abuse people," he said.
Helmand's provincial police chief, Gen. Asadullah Sherzad, said that Aynak was under threat from militants every day, and that "police who are in calm situations are different from police in constant gunbattles."
"For sure there were complaints from the local people about the police, because that was the front line," Sherzad said. "The people suffered from both sides, the enemy side and the police side. Sometimes there were ambushes, and battles were carried out in people's fields."
Sherzad said the old police force had been replaced by a new, well-trained force "who have uniforms and know how to use their equipment. They know how to behave."
The old force will now receive U.S.-sponsored training called "focused district development," a program that gives police eight weeks of intense U.S. training and continued oversight thereafter. Thousands of the nation's 83,000-strong police force have already undergone the training. But about half the force has not.
"They had training but not enough, and that's why the people had problems with them," said Col. Ghulam, who leads the interim police force that replaced the Aynak police. He gave only one name, a common practice in Afghanistan.
"I am sure that when they go back to get focus district development training they will be more professional," he said.