The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Reforming Afghanistan’s Police

Policing goes to the very heart of state building, since a credible national institution that helps provide security and justice for the population is central to government legitimacy.

Executive Summary

Policing goes to the very heart of state building, since a credible national institution that helps provide security and justice for the population is central to government legitimacy. However Afghanistan’s citizens often view the police more as a source of fear than of security. Instead of emphasising their coercive powers, reform should focus on accountability, ethnic representation and professionalism, along with an urgent need to depoliticise and institutionalise appointments and procedures. It is counter-productive to treat police as an auxiliary fighting unit in battling the insurgency, as has been happening with increasing frequency in the troubled south. Afghanistan, like any other democracy, requires police service more than police force.

The state of the Afghan National Police (ANP) nearly six years after the fall of the Taliban reflects the international community’s failure to grasp early on the centrality of comprehensive reform of the law enforcement and justice sectors, despite similar hard-learned lessons in other countries attempting to emerge from years of armed conflict. President Karzai’s government still lacks the political will to tackle a culture of impunity and to end political interference in appointments and operations. Attempts to shortcut institution building are compounded by an exploding narcotics trade – partly symptomatic of the state of policing but even more clearly a major corrupting influence on attempted reforms. At the same time, the challenges of a growing insurgency are pushing quick fixes to the fore.

There have certainly been some changes and improvements. In some urban centres, at least the “hardware” of equipment and buildings is visibly improved; the police have new uniforms and some are better equipped. New systems and structures at the interior ministry (MOI) provide at least a shell of professionalism. However the return on invested human and financial capital is modest.

Rooting out corruption and ensuring operational autonomy – with oversight – are critical if the police are to provide a professional, consistent service to citizens rather than acting as a coercive tool of governing elites. Properly equipping police is important for efficiency and morale but ultimately it is an ethos of community service that can make the real difference by fostering wider trust. A trusted law enforcement institution would assist nearly everything that needs to be achieved in the country from security, through gender rights and minority rights, to building investor confidence and development goals. Part of earning trust and building a true national institution is ensuring that the population is reflected in the make-up of the command and control structures. Both ethnic and gender imbalances also need to be addressed urgently.

Testing and vetting of police leadership through the pay and rank reform (PRR) process is vital to professionalising the service. However, it is proving an uphill battle as factional networks and drug alliances compete for posts, particularly lucrative ones that oversee smuggling routes. These challenges underscore the necessity of depoliticising the service, ensuring professional development and institutionalising command and control. To meet these goals, the reform process should include the appointment of a police commissioner and strengthened civilian oversight. The international community, which provides the funds, has the right – indeed duty to the Afghan people and its own taxpayers – to insist that agreed processes and criteria are followed.

However, the international community’s competing and conflicting visions of reform, with training and numbers often put ahead of more difficult political issues, is undermining progress and highlights the lack of experienced, flexible institutions to oversee police reform. The U.S. decision to give a leading role in its police programs to the Department of Defense has further blurred the distinction between the military and police. Other donor nations and institutions will only be able to assert more influence if they are prepared to step up with commitments, resources and a clear strategic vision. The European Union Police Mission to Afghanistan (EUPOL) has just taken over from Germany as key partner on police reform but so far lacks numbers and a robust mandate. All programs and donor countries must now commit to work together in the International Police Coordination Board (IPCB), make development of an overarching reform strategy a priority and back that strategy by multi-year financial pledges with disbursement of funds conditioned to measurable progress.

It is promising that the international community recognises the vital need for reform but the urgency is driven by the growing insecurity, and the police are being asked to take on roles for which they are neither equipped nor trained. As a result, police casualties are increasing, even as counter-insurgency responsibilities undermine their main task of working with and protecting communities. Kabul and its partners need to acknowledge that different security arms of the state have different roles. The creation of an auxiliary police has further blurred distinctions between the security agencies and prioritised boots on the ground – any boots – over building quality. Good policing is vital for democracy, and democratic functioning is vital for counter-insurgency; the two are not and must not be seen as mutually exclusive. If police reform in Afghanistan is to succeed, the goal should be creation of a trusted, civilian service, which enforces – and is accountable to – the rule of law.

Kabul/Brussels, 30 August 2007

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