How Afghan Police Training Became a Train Wreck

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The Pentagon faces a tough choice: Should it award a new contract to Xe (formerly Blackwater), a company made infamous when its employees killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007, or to DynCorp, a company made infamous in Bosnia in 1999 when some of its employees were caught trafficking young girls for sex?

This billion-dollar contract will be the linchpin of a training program for the Afghan National Police, who are theoretically to be drilled in counterinsurgency tactics that will help defeat the Taliban and bring security to impoverished, war-torn Afghanistan. The program is also considered a crucial component of the Obama administration’s plan for turning the war around. Ironically, Xe was poised to win the contract until a successful appeal by DynCorp last week threw the field wide open.

Some people in the US government (and many outside it) believe that this task should not be assigned to private contractors in the first place. Meanwhile, many police experts are certain that it hardly matters which company gets the contract. Like so many before it, the latest training program is doomed from the outset, they believe, because its focus will be on defeating the Taliban rather than fostering community-oriented policing.

The Obama administration is in a fix: it believes that, if it can’t put at least 100,000 trained police officers on Afghan streets and into the scattered hamlets that make up the bulk of the country, it won’t be able to begin a drawdown of US troop levels in Afghanistan by the middle of next year.

“The Obama administration’s strategy for the Afghan police is to increase numbers, enlarge the ‘train and equip’ program, and engage the police in the fight against the Taliban,” says Robert Perito, an expert on police training at the United States Institute of Peace and the author of a new book, The Police in War. “This approach has not worked in the past, and doing more of the same will not achieve success.”

When it comes to police training, the use of private contractors is not unusual—and neither is failure. North Carolina-based Xe has, in fact, been training the Afghan border police for more than two years, and Virginia-based DynCorp has been doing the same for the Afghan uniformed police for more than seven years now. Nonetheless, the mismanagement of the $7 billion spent on police training over the last eight years, partly attributed to lax US State Department oversight, has left the country of 33 million people with a strikingly ineffective and remarkably corrupt police force. Its terrible habits and reputation have led the inhabitants of many Afghan communities to turn to the Taliban for security.

Of the training programs run by the NATO Training Mission out of Camp Eggers in Kabul, the Afghan capital, only DynCorp’s component is even fully staffed. The company supplies 782 former American police officers to dozens of training centers and military bases scattered around the country to work with the US military and with European Union police mentors. Altogether there are supposed to be 4,000 of these trainers, but NATO estimates that it has only half of the staffers it needs.

In a desperate attempt to offset this shortage of trainers, Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar has proposed the dispatching of 3,000 police officers annually to Jordan and Turkey for nine months of instruction abroad.

Too-Fast-Track Training

In May 2009, I visited several training sites for the Afghan security forces in and around Kabul. Major Joey Schneider of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan escorted me around a recruitment center at the Kabul Central Police Command. There, dozens of raw recruits from Afghan villages were being tested for ever-present drugs before induction into a fast-track program to double the 5,000 police officers in Kabul before the August elections.

“After three weeks in the Kabul Security Acceleration Program, these men will get a badge, uniform, and gun and be sent out to patrol,” Schneider explained. Asked if that was really sufficient, he assured me that the new police officers would be given an additional five weeks of intensive post-election training by DynCorp contractors and international military mentors.

Three months later, a report for the European Commission written by Scott Chilton and Tim Bremmers, two police experts, in collaboration with Eckart Schiewek, a senior United Nations official, concluded that this approach was a disaster-in-the-making. It was, they claimed, causing an “absolute irresponsible downgrading” of the police force. “Our view is that the spiraling increase in police deaths and wounding will further increase with quick-fix recruiting, poor training, and equipping.”

Absurd as it may sound, this program is considered better conceived than many of the older training programs the Afghan government launched with US funding. For example, a 2006 attempt to induct 11,000 villagers into a new organization dubbed the Afghan National Auxiliary Police—with only 10 days of training from DynCorp and international military mentors—was a complete and abysmal failure. One-third of the trainees in certain southern provinces, given a gun and a uniform, were never seen again. Two years later, in September 2008, the project was terminated.

A 2008 report by the well-respected International Crisis Group pointed out that such rapid-induction programs had the perverse effect of actually lowering the average literacy rate and effectiveness of the Afghan police force—and that’s without even considering the security problems created by those drop-outs with guns.

Eight Years of Failures

Until recently, Afghanistan has never really had a national police force, though before the Soviet invasion of 1979 there was a conscription system that produced rank-and-file cops working under a trained officer corps. In 2002, in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat, the Germans set up a police academy in Kabul that offered a five-year training program aimed at bringing back the officer corps. In 2003, the US awarded a small contract to DynCorp to run a train-the-trainers program in Kabul, based on prior work it had done in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

Yet no one spent much time worrying about beat-cop training, least of all the Bush administration, which was already immersed in planning the invasion of Iraq and preferred to operate in Afghanistan with what it liked to call a “light footprint.”

By 2005, security in Kabul was deteriorating sharply. At the same time, the spectacular failure of the US effort to create a brand new police force in Iraq had helped spark a bloody, devastating civil war in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Somewhere in this period, Bush administration officials started to wake up to the possibility that Afghanistan might be heading in the same direction.A series of new contracts were then issued to DynCorp by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs—$1.6 billion in training work scheduled to be completed by the end of 2009. (The contracts have since been extended to June 2010.)

State Department planners seem to have taken an inordinately long time to wake up to the basic problems that Afghanistan faced in creating a viable police force. With salaries pegged at $16 a month for a beat cop in 2002, the police were particularly vulnerable to corruption in the form of extorted bribes, and to the Taliban who offered much higher wages to their fighters. Making the situation worse, the force was remarkably top-heavy. More than 20,000 officers and non-commissioned officers oversaw only 36,000 patrolmen. It was regularly alleged that they made their beat cops shake down citizens for bribes. In fact, a 2007 study by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan that reviewed the records of 2,464 police officers found claims of drug trafficking, corruption, or assaults against more than one-third of them.

“There are some parts of Afghanistan where the last thing people want to see is the police showing up,” Brigadier General Gary O’Brien, former deputy commander of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, told the Canadian Press news agency in March 2007. “They are part of the problem. They do not provide security for the people—they are the robbers of the people.”

Salaries are not the only budget shortfall. Afghanistan simply has no money to pay for equipment like guns and police vehicles, or even to build police stations. Instead, for the last eight years the Afghan police have received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of donated weapons and other equipment, much of which turned out to be broken or incompatible with the equipment the force already had. Typical was a batch of thousands of Czech VZ58 rifles that look like the AK-47s Afghan policemen traditionally carry but require completely different maintenance procedures.

In another glaring example of what a lack of resources has led to, Hazeb Emerging Business, an Afghan company hired to maintain the force’s weapons, used hammers and nails to “repair” grenade launchers, because they had no idea how to fix donated weapons. In perhaps the most widely reported mishap, AEY Inc., based in Florida, and described by the New York Times as “a fledgling company led by a 22-year-old man whose vice president was a licensed masseur,” dispatched to the Afghan security forces 100 million Chinese cartridges, some 40 years old and in “decomposing packaging,” under a $10 million Pentagon contract.

In a country where the official literacy rate is pegged at an optimistic 30%—some estimates put the rate among police recruits at closer to 5%, or even less—most of any Western-style training curriculum proves strikingly irrelevant. To make things worse, one in five volunteers for police training is a drug-abuser, a statistic that rises to 60% in southern provinces like Helmand, which produces a significant part of the opium crop for the world’s leading narco-state.

Not surprisingly, then, capability assessments of the Afghan police have been less than encouraging. At a June 2008 discussion at the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Congressman John Tierney summed up findings on the 433 Afghan National Police units of that moment this way: “Zero are fully capable, three percent are capable with coalition support, four percent are only partially capable, 77 percent are not capable at all, and 68 percent are not formed or not reporting.”

A new plan was drawn up under which dramatic changes were made, including the raising of police salaries to $180 a month in 2010 (and in high-risk areas up to $240). In addition, increasing numbers of police salaries are now paid directly and electronically to bank accounts or cell phones, which means it’s harder for officers to dip into the meager pay of their underlings.

The officer corps has also been slashed dramatically, thanks to a new requirement that all high-level staff complete a difficult exam.  By 2010, the 340 generals had been reduced to 117, the 2,450 colonels to 301, and the 1,824 lieutenant colonels to 467. (Afghan police ranks have military titles.)

Perhaps most significantly, a new, intensive training program called Focused District Development (FDD) was launched in late 2007 under which every police officer in specific districts would be removed en masse for eight weeks of training in another part of the country. In the meantime, the country’s elite police unit, the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), was to temporarily take over local policing duties. When the original force returned, a mentorship team of 14 internationals accompanied them to provide advice and—at least theoretically—to root out corruption.

By early 2009, FDD was claiming success.  Almost one in five police districts which completed the program was now considered “independently capable.”  (Before 2008, that number was zero.) Unfortunately, only one-quarter of the police districts in Afghanistan have completed the FDD program to date and only 5% of the country’s police units are considered capable of operating on their own. Even this may be an illusion as an estimated 25% of police recruits quit every year—and that’s not just among the bad performers. The drop-out rate for the 2,500 strong elite ANCOP is an astronomical 65%, making any training efforts a Sisyphean undertaking.

One year after Obama promised to revamp the Afghan police aid effort by sending in more trainers and civilian experts, no one is hailing the results as an outstanding success; few even consider them a half-decent start. “Operationally, the effort is broken. Assets are misdirected, poorly managed and misused,” wrote Robert A. Wehrle, a US advisor to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, in February 2010 after returning from a 15-month stint in Kabul. “Graft and corruption in the Afghan forces are endemic, and coalition forces unwittingly enable that corruption.”

Assigning Blame

Who, then, is responsible for this dismal state of affairs? Many have pointed fingers at the State Department. A joint report from the inspectors general of the Pentagon and the State Department claims that the DynCorp contract was particularly badly managed. “The current [contract does] not provide any specific information regarding what type of training is required or any measurement of acceptability… Additionally, the current contract does not include any measurement of contractor performance.”

Indeed, DynCorp’s police trainers, who tend to hail from small American towns, are often remarkably ignorant about life in a war zone. A DynCorp trainer from Texas, who asked not to be named, typically told this reporter about his first encounter with mortars in eastern Afghanistan: “I was mesmerized by what looked like a fireworks display.” Angry US soldiers yelled at him to hit the ground.

Naturally, DynCorp disputes this. “[N]either our military nor European National police were formed or trained to teach basic law enforcement skills,” Don Ryder, the DynCorp program manager, told the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a congressionally mandated body established to offer an independent assessment of contracting practices in Iraq and Afghanistan. “At DynCorp International we do not build satellites. We do not design aircraft. We do training and mentoring. That is our core competency—and this competency is represented in the DNA of our 30,000 employees worldwide.”

Most experts disagree. “DynCorp and [the] State [Department] had too few people, too few resources, and too little experience building a police force in the midst of an insurgency,” Seth Jones, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation who spent most of 2009 traveling with Army Special Forces teams in Afghanistan, told the commission. “While it may be necessary to utilize [private] contractors to help execute some security programs—including helping US military or other government officials conduct some police training—contractors should not be the lead entity, as they were from 2003 to 2005.”

Not the least of the problem with Dyncorp (or Xe, if it gets the new training contract) is the cost of hiring such contractors to train police. Each expatriate police officer makes a six-figure US salary, at least 50 times more than an Afghan police officer and three times as much as military mentors.

Alternative Police Programs

Mentoring programs “are based on the assumption that international mentors are the more knowledgeable actors, whose job it is to impart their wisdom and expertise to their Afghan junior partners,” observed Andrew Wilder, the former director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul, in his 2007 report on the Afghan police, “Cops or Robbers?” “In reality, however, this is often not the case. The internationals may know much more about the technical aspects of policing in the West, but the Afghans know much more about the culture and politics of policing in Afghanistan.”

Wilder proposes a radical solution: to dramatically scale back the plans for an Afghan police force. He notes that the historical role of police in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas, was limited to protecting government buildings. “Most civil disputes and criminal matters, however, were not referred to the police or courts—which were perceived to be corrupt, costly, and slow to take decisions—but were resolved using customary law and institutions.” Wilder believes any counterinsurgency efforts to fight terrorist attacks should be limited to the Afghan army and possibly a “separate paramilitary force, or gendarmerie.”

“A prevalent view, even among some international police, is that Afghanistan is unready for civilian policing and holds that the police must remain a military force while insecurity lasts,” writes Tonita Murray, a former director general of the Canadian Police College, who worked as an advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Interior in 2005. “If such a view were to prevail, only military solutions for security sector reform would be considered, and Afghanistan would be caught in a vicious circle of using force against force without employing other approaches to secure stability and peace.”

According to Robert Perito, who worked with the US Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program training police in international peace operations from 1995 to 2001, the US government should rethink its entire approach. It should, he says, pull back from using contractors to run its police-training program, turning instead to a strong US federal workforce that is qualified to undertake police training abroad.

A New Direction?

Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, head of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, admitted that police training has been a train wreck since the toppling of the Taliban almost nine years ago. “We weren’t doing it right. The most important thing is to recruit and then train police [before deployment]. It is still beyond my comprehension that we weren’t doing that.”

The realization that giving illiterate, drug-prone young men a uniform, badge, and gun (as well as very little money and no training) was a recipe for corruption and disaster is certainly a first step. But how to withdraw the 95% of the Afghan police force that is still incapable of basic policing for months of desperately needed training in a country with no prior history of such things?  That turns out to be a conundrum, even for President Obama.

On March 12th, the president devoted much of the monthly video conference call between his Washington national security team and his senior commanders in Afghanistan to questions about how the problem should be tackled. “The President has gone through and looked at monthly recruitment and retention goals because… we’re not going to be there forever,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that day. “Not only are we going to need improved governance, but we’re going to need a police force that can keep the peace.”

If the Pentagon does not dramatically alter the current training scheme, it doesn’t look good for either governance or peace in Afghanistan. Yet the likelihood remains low indeed that Pentagon officials will take the advice of a chorus of police experts offering critical commentary on the mess that is the police training program there. Instead, it’s likely to be more of the same, which means more private contracting of police training and further disaster. Bizarrely enough, the Pentagon has given the Space and Missile Defense Command Contracting Office in Huntsville, Alabama, the task of deciding between DynCorp and Xe for that new billion-dollar training contract. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French say: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Pratap Chatterjee is a freelance journalist and senior editor at CorpWatch.  He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Central Asia and is the author of two books about the war on terror, Iraq, Inc. and Halliburton’s Army (Nation Books, 2009), which has just been published in paperback. He can be contacted at To listen to a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview in which Chatterjee discusses the lives of contractor/trainers in Afghanistan, click here or, if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here.


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We need to start raising significantly more in donations from our online community of readers, especially from those who read Mother Jones regularly but have never decided to pitch in because you figured others always will. We also need long-time and new donors, everyone, to keep showing up for us.

In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

Please learn more about how Mother Jones works and our 47-year history of doing nonprofit journalism that you don't elsewhere—and help us do it with a donation if you can. We've already cut expenses and hitting our online goal is critical right now.

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