Helmand: Derided Police Turn Over New Leaf
Despite their tarnished reputation, the province’s police have recently scored major successes.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Zainullah Stanekzai (ARR No. 286, 26-Mar-08)
Helmand residents are saying that the province’s much-criticised policemen are becoming more effective, breaking up several major criminal gangs and helping the people of this beleaguered corner of Afghanistan to feel more secure.
Helmand, the centre of the Taleban insurgency and the world capital of opium poppy, has more than enough problems without common criminals. But kidnapping gangs have been on the rise, with dozens of people abducted and held for ransom.
Doctors, small-time businessmen, boys on motor scooters – anyone who looks to have a bit of cash and no protection is fair game.
Over the past year, at least 30 persons have been abducted in Helmand province. Some were released after their relatives paid the ransom, but others were killed. The authorities here would not give exact figures on these deaths. It is also quite likely that the number of abductions is underreported, given the population’s traditional mistrust of the police.
But in February, Helmand police rounded up a gang of 17 alleged kidnappers in the village of Adam Khan in Greshk district. A week or so earlier, they arrested six in Lashkar Gah, and before that, a gang in Nawa.
The message has gone out to the local population: the police are doing their best to shed the image of rag-tag thieves and drug addicts that they have enjoyed up until now.
“May God grant the police a long life,” said Haji Talib, a businessman from Musa Qala district. He was freed by police when they raided the gang in Adam Khan.
“I was abducted along with my car,” he recounted shortly after his release, handcuffs still dangling from his wrists. “They stole my money, about six million Pakistani rupees (approximately 100,000 US dollars) and made me call my family and demand another 50 million afghani (1 million dollars). Otherwise, they said, they would kill me and sell my lungs and liver.”
Relieved that his ordeal was over, Hajji Talib was effusive in his praise for his liberators.
“Police can do anything if they are given the right orders and instructed properly,” he said. “I am very proud of [Police Chief] Mohammad Hussain Andiwal.”
Andiwal came to Helmand province less than a year ago, with a mandate to reform the police.
He told a large gathering soon after his arrival that a new era was dawning for Helmand’s law enforcement organisations.
“Let us forget about the past. I want the police to work well in the future. Do not forget our slogan: police are the servants of society.
I have spoken to the ministry of the interior, and told them that I will work in Helmand if you raise the salaries of the police. God willing, you will get higher salaries, but you need to work for the people and your communities,” he said.
Andiwal and his new policies have already made a significant difference in the province’s security, say residents.
“I was so happy when I heard about the arrests in Adam Khan,” said Bashar, a resident of Greshk. “Before this, we could only hope that the army would protect us. But now we see the police also can do such things. I am very proud of them, and I think that the police will get the support of the community if they catch thieves and other criminals.”
Helmand’s police force, like in much of Afghanistan, has been plagued by corruption, drug addiction, and inadequate training, which have hampered efforts at reform. One British officer, who was tasked with mentoring Helmand’s police force, remarked privately that the problems had seemed all but insurmountable.
“We concentrated on training the traffic cops,” he said.
The poppy industry, which is by far the major economic activity in Helmand, had also fueled corruption. Farmers pay the police a negotiated rate to keep them from destroying their fields.
“The police have not come to my farm since I gave them 50 afghani per acre,” said Taza Gul, a farmer in Nad Ali district.
In addition to large-scale corruption, the police often shake down residents for small sums.
Bismillah, a resident of Babaji village in Nad Ali, said that police checkpoints set up to ensure security have instead become yet another headache.
“One day we were out and had our women along with us. The police kept us waiting for over an hour, asking us for 100 afghani,” he complained.
The police have also earned a reputation as substance abusers; the drug treatment centre in Lashkar Gah has several officers who are trying to kick the habit. Many more are still using drugs, and still wearing their uniforms.
Police Chief Andiwal admits that there are problems.
“We recently made a decision to discharge those who are using drugs,” he said.
Some of the problems are attributed to a lack of training, despite the high profile and generously funded programmes set up by the international community.
A training centre has been set up in neighbouring Kandahar, where recruits are taught the basics of law enforcement by Western officers and the US contractor DynCorp.
But, in Helmand at least, many would-be cops are not eager to spend time in the police academy, preferring to make a short-term killing and then get out.
Nadir, an officer from Nad Ali, said he is not interested in a career with the police.
“This region is sometimes controlled by the Taleban and sometimes by the government,” he said. “What is the point in my studying in the academy?”
Ghafur, a police commander in Marja district, said that the force is so short of staff that they try to recruit directly, without sending the new officers to the academy.
“We do not have enough personnel to maintain security while some are off studying in the academy,” he said. “We need to use raw recruits.”
But Sawar, an 18-year-old graduate of the academy, recommended the training to all officers. He said recruits learn everything from how to properly use their weapons to how to conduct themselves professionally.
“Better training would do much to improve the image of Helmand’s police,” he added.
Andiwal, too, insists that the recent run of success among the police was due to the training.
“We have not done much to better the lot of the police,” he told IWPR. “Their salaries are very low. But we have been successful in our training. It is the education of the police that has made the difference.”
Whatever the reason, Helmand’s police force has scored some major breakthroughs, both in actual arrests and in gaining the trust of the population. And support among the locals is key to combating crime, say officials.
“I can assure the people that we can get rid of these monsters if the community helps us,” said Andiwal. “All of our achievements were made possible by people, and if the people cooperate, we will have further successes.”
Sher Zaman, an officer in the police headquarters in Lashkar Gah, agreed.
“We arrested that gang of [alleged] kidnappers in Adam Khan village because civilians cooperated with us,” he told IWPR. “People informed us of where they were, and we were able to take them. We can serve the community all the time, if they cooperate.”
But old habits die hard.
“We would be much happier and work a lot harder if the government would raise our salaries to 10,000 afghani, ” said one officer in the Chan Jir area. “The new provincial police chief is very strict, and he wants to help people. But we have not been given new weapons or higher salaries. We do not have what we need.”
Nadir, who worked as a policeman for two years before he quit, also thinks that more pay would translate into better security for the people of Helmand.
“The major difficulty is salary,” he said. “When I was a policeman, salaries were very low, and I quit. Now salaries are about 5,000 afghani. Maybe if they boosted the pay even more, the police would work harder. And I would come back.”
Agha Noor Aka, a resident of Chan Jir, is happy with the modest pay hike, since his son is a police officer.
“My son has been in police force for ten months now,” he told IWPR. “At first, he brought nothing home at all. But now, once a month, he buys us sugar and candy. May God guide him!”
Adam Khan was not the only successful operation in recent weeks. Helmand police also rounded up a gang of six criminals in Lashkar Gah, in the Taleban-dominated Safian neighbourhood. Here, too, the cooperation of residents played a role.
“We had been after these people for a long time,” said one police commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We found them because people who lived near them told us about their whereabouts, and we were able to arrest them.”
A similar operation in Nawa district also yielded a six-man gang of alleged kidnappers.
In early February, police were able to arrest two highwaymen who were using women’s clothing to disarm potential victims. They had already stolen one motorcycle, and were on their way to taking another one, when residents informed the police.
“We chased these men until nightfall,” said Andiwal. “Villagers helped us, and we found them in a local house, still dressed in women’s clothing.”
The arrest brought an added bonus: the police found a remote control bomb when they searched the house. The suspects told police that their older brothers were in the bomb-making business.
Even Helmand’s most sceptical residents are starting to believe in the police.
“I used to consider all government officials irresponsible, and had no faith that anyone could save me if I were abducted,” said Akram Kharoti, a resident of Nad Ali. “I never believed that police would bring thieves to justice. But now I am very happy. God willing, this country will be rebuilt if the police are active and work properly.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Zainullah Stanekzai are IWPR reporter trainees in Helmand.