Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy
Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Let Afghanistan Rebuild
Let Afghanistan Rebuild
Briefing 85 / Asia

Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy

Police reform in Afghanistan is receiving more attention and resources than ever before, but such increased efforts are still yet to be matched by significant improvements in police effectiveness and public confidence.

I. Overview

Police reform in Afghanistan is receiving more attention and resources than ever before, but such increased efforts are still yet to be matched by significant improvements in police effectiveness and public confidence. Too much emphasis has continued to be placed on using the police to fight the insurgency rather than crime. Corruption and political appointments are derailing attempts to professionalise the force. The government and the international community need to reinforce the International Policing Coordination Board (IPCB) as the central forum for prioritising efforts and drive forward with much greater unity of effort. Tangible steps such as appointing a career police commissioner and establishing community liaison boards will build professionalism and wider outreach. A national police force able to uphold the rule of law is crucial to state-building and would help tackle the root causes of alienation that drive the insurgency.

After years of neglect, the international community appears to be recognising the importance of police reform in Afghanistan. Greater focus on the sector has seen the first large-scale district-level training and equipping program, $3.8 billion in U.S. commitments in 2007 and 2008 and a reinforced European Union (EU) policing mission. Nevertheless, there is still need for enhanced coordination in the efforts of different countries involved in reform, with a greater emphasis on developing Afghan institutions rather than parallel programs. The EU, despite having nominal lead for police reform, has failed to match rhetoric with a comprehensive strategy and adequate resourcing and personnel. Instead, a deteriorating security situation and political pressure for quick results has continued to obscure longer-term strategic planning and the importance of civilian oversight.

The U.S. military, the dominant actor, still mainly sees the police as an auxiliary security force rather than an enforcer of the law. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is ill-equipped for this role, with 1,200 insurgency-related police deaths in 2007 – and on track for similar numbers in 2008. Such an approach also ignores that organised crime and the lack of rule of law lie at the heart of much popular disillusionment and instability. Lessons that could have been learned from other counter-insurgency situations often appear lost amid a profusion of international efforts. Better law enforcement, including a functioning judicial system, would help counter any appeal the insurgents may hold in Afghanistan.

On-the-ground police training and restructuring has not been matched by political will in Kabul or foreign capitals to tackle the powerbrokers impeding reform. A senior international official described, “trying to do police reform while simultaneously co-existing with forces who want to reach in and corrupt it”. Police appointments and operations are subject to interference at every level.

Despite these shortcomings, there is renewed hope. Changes of personnel at the top provide a chance for fresh impetus in setting goals and driving implementation. These include a new interior minister; a new attorney general; and a new commander of the European policing mission. U.S. military training efforts have been realigned under the dual-hatted commander of U.S forces and the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While there are calls for more resources, there first needs to be much greater coherence of approach and streamlining of programs, with political, strategic and operational decision-making clearly delineated and roles defined.

There is, above all, a pressing need for an improved strategic focus across the security and rule-of-law sectors, ensuring police reform takes place within larger state-building efforts, including:

  • clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the different security organs – the police, the military and the intelligence agencies;
  • parallel reform and links with prosecutors’ offices and the justice sector;
  • public outreach and consultation with civil society, including women’s organisations, about the shape of policing and the creation of civilian accountability mechanisms; and 
  • moving past security-oriented, militaristic notions of policing to include community-policing efforts that build community trust and credibility.

In August 2007 Crisis Group stressed: “Rule of law, upheld by accountable, depoliticised national institutions is key to state building … the police must be viewed as part of a wider process of democratisation, rather than simply a security task”. This briefing focuses on the Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) and considers major developments in 2007-2008. These include the Focused District Development (FDD) program, begun in late 2007 to reform police at the district level countrywide, as well as the deployment of the EU Policing Mission to Afghanistan (EUPOL), which assumed the nominal lead for police reform in mid-2007. Information was gathered through research in Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul. While many individuals were helpful, it should be noted that policymaking in the sector has become increasingly opaque and data – always notoriously unreliable in Afghanistan – increasingly difficult to access.

Kabul/Brussels, 18 December 2008

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.