KOLK, Afghanistan — When the improvised bomb exploded in a mud-walled compound about 300 yards from a new traffic checkpoint, the six Afghan police officers at the post just looked at one another.
Another violent day on Afghanistan's Highway 1 had begun.
"Tell them to send three guys and go check it out to make sure no locals were hurt," U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Hans Beutel told a translator. "Tell them not to get too close, but go take a look."
Then Beutel, 23, and the rest of his team from the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division drove off to a half-finished nearby base to grab a quick lunch. When they returned to the police checkpoint in the early afternoon, they found it deserted.
It was another lost afternoon in the frustrating effort to train Afghanistan's ill-paid police, who have a well-deserved reputation for stealing and extorting bribes. Staff Sgt. Tony Locklear, a 44-year-old from Robeson County, N.C., who'd spent the morning coaching the officers on running a checkpoint, cursed when he saw they were gone.
Training the Afghan national and local police, who function as a paramilitary force, is essential to the Obama administration's efforts to find an exit from Afghanistan. If the Afghan government is ever to take control of the country, it will need a less corrupt and more professional police force that can stand on its own.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, the police appear to be years away from functioning independently. American trainers say they must tell the Afghans repeatedly to do the simplest things, such as separating passengers they've searched from ones they haven't when they stop a vehicle.
The police suffer from a range of problems besides corruption, their U.S. trainers say. Illiteracy is the norm — Beutel thinks that only about 10 percent of the police officers he works with can read — and drug abuse is common.
Still, the police, manning vulnerable traffic checkpoints, routinely suffer casualties at a rate two or three times that of any other force on the coalition side, and American trainers say that many are fearless under fire.
This area along Highway 1 about 25 miles west of Kandahar illustrates the challenge the police face. Down a dusty side road about 700 yards from the police checkpoint, two white flags flapped in the breeze one recent morning.
"A few days after we started showing up here, the Taliban put up those flags," said Beutel, of Huntersville, N.C. "Pretty much everything past that is theirs."
After nearly two dozen assaults into Taliban turf in the past three months, Beutel and the soldiers he commands describe a nightmarish place in which the Taliban control the villages even in daylight, and the roads and paths are laden with bombs and mines.
Beutel said he'd like to clean it all out and set up checkpoints outside the villages to prevent the Taliban from slipping back. That, however, would take perhaps twice as many police.