Policing Afghanistan

KABUL — Underpaid, under-equipped and under-trained, Afghanistan's 93,000-member police force is the weak link in an ambitious security strategy to hand over defense of the country to Afghans so American and other foreign troops can go home.

A strong, unified national police force has long eluded Afghanistan, a country torn by occupation and warfare for hundreds of years. But with the West now attempting to help turn the country from a failed state into at least a functioning one, the police will play a crucial role in making cities safe places to live.

That's needed to win the loyalty of ordinary Afghans, many of whom note that under the repressive rule of the Taliban, at least crime was low.

President Hamid Karzai brought the issue into sharp focus during his inaugural address Thursday, when he said he wanted Afghan security forces to take the lead in securing the nation within five years.

But some analysts estimate it could take a decade before cities can be secured by a police force that is riddled with corruption, unprofessionalism and illiteracy.

Police on the street and manning checkpoints often find themselves on the front line of a virulent insurgency, making them three times more likely to be killed than Afghan soldiers. From January 2007 to July this year, 1,973 police were killed, compared with 735 Afghan troops.

' 'We are expected to fight insurgents, not just criminals,'' said Khan Mohammed Zazai, police chief in the violent southern province of Kandahar. He said his force faced shortages of assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, ammunition and four-wheel drive vehicles.

' 'There would be no need for more sophisticated weapons if we did not need to fight an insurgency. But we are fighting an insurgency as well. If we don't get better equipment, we will lose.''

Currently it's just the desperate who sign up for the job — and even then, many leave, often taking their equipment with them. In a country where 72 percent of the population is illiterate, those who can read rarely have problems finding better-paid jobs.

Only ''illiterate people will accept the salary that we pay the police,'' said Brig. Gen. Khudadad Agah, who is in charge of training.

' 'An educated person will not work for 6,000 afghanis ($120) a month,'' Agah said.