For nearly 20 years, the United States and the international community provided assistance to the Afghan National Police (ANP) with the goal of creating a legitimate, accountable, and effective civilian police force that could protect the population from criminals and uphold the country’s rule of law. The lack of such a civilian law enforcement authority increases the risk that a country remains unstable or reverts back to active conflict. Yet—with the exception of some specialized police forces—community policing and law enforcement capabilities in Afghanistan were weak or nonexistent, despite more than $21 billion in U.S. and international financial support. Overall, the ANP proved incapable of enforcing the law, protecting Afghan citizens from attacks from the Taliban and the Islamic State, or ensuring that Afghanistan does not become another safe haven for international terrorists. In August 2021, four months after the U.S. president announced a full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF)—including the ANP—collapsed, paving the way for a Taliban takeover.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its latest “Lessons Learned” report, Police in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, that explores the reasons behind the United States’ inability to create an effective police force in Afghanistan.
This study identified 11 key findings from U.S. and international police assistance since 2002 that highlight the problems and successes of police assistance in Afghanistan:
- In many ways, the United States’ approach to police assistance in Afghanistan resembled failed efforts by the Soviet Union, other international donors, and former Afghan government administrations. All resulted in an overmilitarized police force incapable of protecting average citizens from internal and external threats.
- Historically, Afghanistan has been fragmented by ethnic divisions and struggles among warlords. Police have always been perceived as the central government’s heavy-handed enforcer and tax collector, not as protectors of the citizenry and maintainers of law and order. The design of the ANP failed to take into account that one of the first steps in reforming the police was to establish a new social contract between the police and the Afghan citizens which would outline the roles and responsibilities of the newly formed Afghan police in relation to society. It would also give that society a role in holding the new police force accountable for adhering to its new standards.
- The civilian approach was based on the assumption that Afghanistan was a post-conflict state, which would allow for a long-term professional development program that would take years to reach fruition. In reality, security deteriorated quickly after 2005. Without adequate resources, the civilian agencies suffered from reduced freedom of movement and the lack of force protection capabilities required to operate in high-threat environments. For this reason, both the German and U.S. civilian approaches were too slow for the Afghan environment. Neither organization was able to provide consistent training in the field, a widely recognized best practice.
- U.S. military-led police assistance resulted in an overmilitarized approach that prioritized training the police to engage in combat operations against the Taliban at the expense of providing law enforcement and community policing. The U.S. military is not organized or prepared for foreign police assistance missions. It lacks an institutionalized mechanism to deploy technical experts in rule of law, law enforcement, and community policing. Instead, the U.S. military deployed soldiers with no experience in policing as police advisors.
- The police are only one pillar of the overall criminal justice system. Yet police assistance programs were conducted independently from other donor-led programs focusing on two closely related pillars: developing courts and training prosecutors.
- Afghan police commanders who were effective in combating the insurgency and who were supported by large portions of the local population also engaged in criminal behavior, torture of detainees, corruption, and even extrajudicial killings. Police advisors faced a dilemma of how to balance U.S. short-term objectives of combating the insurgency with the long-term objectives of creating a legitimate and professional police force that respected human rights and the rule of law.
- The establishment of hundreds of isolated police checkpoints provided the ANP the opportunity to prey upon the local population, and provided the Taliban-led insurgency with targets of opportunity. This resulted in an unsustainable number of Afghan police casualties and the loss of U.S.-provided equipment.
- U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency doctrine discusses the importance of closing the gap between the local population and the government, and increasing interaction between the citizenry and the police. However, absent reforms to the ANP, the counterinsurgency strategy increased the opportunity for a predatory and corrupt police force to abuse local citizens. Locals increasingly opposed the Afghan police presence that followed successful counterinsurgency clearing operations.
- The failure to create, resource, and integrate a national literacy campaign from the outset undermined the effectiveness of police assistance programs. Low literacy rates in host nations’ populations are a major challenge confronting foreign police training efforts. Yet literacy training is often overlooked, or is implemented after police have already been deployed. Illiterate police cannot perform basic law enforcement functions such as writing reports, recording license plate numbers, and obtaining witness statements. Illiteracy among police also limits the amount and quality of evidence that can be used in prosecutions.
- To address immediate security needs, U.S. police assistance initially prioritized rapidly increasing the quantity of police officers in the ANP over the quality and sustainability of police training. This resulted in poorly trained police being sent into communities. For example, DOD pushed to increase the ANP force strength from 62,000 to over 120,000 police, while hastily deploying poorly trained local auxiliary forces to fight on the front lines.
- A best practice for international police assistance is to embed advisors with the required technical expertise and ability to influence and teach foreign police as advisors within host nation police units. This approach was done successfully
in Afghanistan with the deployment of DEA agents to support select units of the Counter Narcotics Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents with the Major Crimes Task Force, and military special operations forces with the special tactical teams of the General Command of Police Special Units.