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Trapped in a Loop


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A bit surprising to read the comments of Brigadier-General Laroche. He sounds a bit depressed and he only just arrived in theater.


Canadian troops forced to start from scratch 
From Saturday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Like Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure condemned to push a boulder up a hill every day only to see it roll right back down, Canadian soldiers here are trapped in a loop that has the fourth iteration of troops battling for the exactly the same ground their predecessors in southern Afghanistan fought to take.

“We essentially have to start from scratch, you know,” Brigadier-General Guy Laroche told The Globe and Mail this week in an interview at the main coalition base at Kandahar Air Field.

“Everything we have done in that regard is not a waste of time, but close to it, I would say.”

Gen. Laroche, the new commander of Canada's Task Force Afghanistan, wasn't being critical in any way of the regiments that came here before him – and whose tours were conducted at a frenetic, in some cases combat-heavy, pace that this rotation of soldiers has yet to experience – but rather stating the obvious.

Canadians have been fighting and dying for the same pieces of ground in the same two volatile areas – the lush plains of the notorious Zhari and Panjwai districts that border the Arghandab River – just west of the provincial capital since February, 2006.

The pattern is always the same: The Canadians invariably win the military battle, send the Taliban and the various warlords and drug criminals who are their natural allies on the run, hand over to the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and then find most of their hard-fought gains are lost in the fetid stew of corruption, ineptitude and tribal quarrels that remains the norm in this part of the country.

In a region of Afghanistan that one senior Canadian officer describes as “Babylon with cellphones,” the best they can hope for is that the bubbles of security in each district, which contract with each fighting season and expand again with winter-wrought peace, nonetheless emerge a little bigger each time.

Yet if that appears to have happened to some degree – there are villages that last year were empty because of heavy fighting that are thriving again – on another level ground that was won by Canadians, sometimes several times, is now overrun, in most cases by gangsters and tribal leaders.

All this works to undermine the already eroding authority of the Afghan national government in the south and is to the ultimate benefit of the Taliban, who are able to move more freely when lawless disarray is the status quo.

As recently as this spring, for example, Canadians had a rudimentary forward operating base at a place they called Gundy Ghar in Zhari district. Reporters then embedded with the troops filed stories datelined from the little base.

Yet about 10 days ago, the Vandoos had to fight to get Gundy Ghar back, and in the process lost two soldiers, Master Corporal Christian Duchesne and Master Warrant Officer Mario Mercier, to a roadside bomb.

And in a few hours just last December, soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, and British engineers threw up a spanking new checkpoint in Zhari, complete with a small barracks for the Afghan National Police officers who would purportedly man it, and a proper byway for conducting vehicle searches.

But Gen. Laroche confirmed anecdotal reports from locals and others interviewed by The Globe that here, as in other parts of the district, “there's nothing else, there's nothing left in that area.”

With commandeered checkpoints sometimes used by gangs to extort unofficial taxes, it means life for ordinary Afghans trying to go about their business or move goods to market is that much harder.

The Vandoos have the time to be patient, Gen. Laroche said, whereas in the past, Canadians had been so in demand in other parts of the troubled south that they had to quickly hand off to the fragile Afghan forces.

For instance, the first Canadian battle group, here from February to August last year, was three times called by higher headquarters into neighbouring Helmand province to help beleaguered British forces, taking the bulk of soldiers away from Zhari-Panjwai.

That group, led by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was also charged with getting Dutch troops safely into their operating area, Uruzgan province, without losing any soldiers – another diversion from the Canadian area of operations.

But then and now, the weakest link in Canadian operations here remains the same – the ANP – and is rooted in decisions made hundreds of kilometres away in Kabul or, in some cases, even in other countries.

While the Afghan army has been stood up in a few short years with what is universally agreed was remarkable effectiveness – though of course it is still growing, with a second kandak, or battalion, slated to be on the ground with Canadian mentors – and is generally well regarded by Afghans themselves, the national police force is as troubled and ineffective as ever.

Underpaid compared to army officers, under-trained, under-equipped and killed in the ongoing insurgency at such an astonishing rate that there are fears in some quarters they are being used as cannon fodder, the ANP has suffered both as a result of international lack of co-ordination and the corruption endemic to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior.

With Germany as the lead actor in the training of the ANP from 2002 to this year, largely through the Kabul Police Academy, which trains officers, and the United States as the major donor of funds and focused on regional training centres for ordinary patrolmen, two clashing visions of just what kind of police force the ANP should be have emerged.

A new report from the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent research agency based in Kabul, says these duelling visions are “seriously undermining police reform.”

The Germans, through the German Police Program Office, see the ANP emerging as a civilian law-and-order police force, while the U.S. plan has been to create an ANP that can function as a security force with a major role in battling the insurgency in the southern provinces.

Entitled Cops or Robbers? The Struggle to Reform the Afghan National Police, the report was written by Andrew Wilder, research director for politics and policy at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Boston, and the founder of the AREU.

In addition to the Germany-U.S. clash, with more than 20 other countries, including Canada, involved in various mentoring or reform programs, as well as several major international organizations known by a bewildering array of acronyms – the latest is the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan, or EUPOL, which is in the midst of taking over police reform from the Germans — the results have been little short of chaotic.

According to the AREU report, released in July this year, Italy, which took the international lead on justice reform, has also badly dropped the ball, with the result that there is still “no functioning justice system” such that when police actually make an arrest, with few prosecutors and judges available, there is nowhere to go with the case.

The result has been what another report, prepared last fall for the U.S. departments of State and Defence, calls the “bribe and release” program, whereby people who are arrested simply purchase their freedom on the spot.

Among the examples cited in the AREU report:

- At least 70 per cent of police recruits can't read or write, which obviously severely limits the effectiveness of their training, however good it may be, and casts doubt on their understanding of the rule of law. The real number may be much higher; the report says that of those graduating from one regional training centre last year, only seven of 887 students were literate.

- As of April this year, the ANP has an approved strength of 82,000. But the on-paper number of police officers is far greater than the number of those estimated to be actually working. An audit done at one station in Zabul province last fall showed that while there were 776 police on the station's books, there were only 271 on the job. A former Interior Ministry official is quoted as saying that at one point – this when the police were still being paid centrally, which meant that corrupt commanders could inflate their numbers and pocket the pay — there may have been as many as 21,000 “ghost policemen.”

- Of an on-paper strength of 63,000 trained police last year, only 180 ANP were women, an abysmal figure in a country where women are routinely convicted of so-called moral crimes, such as running away from battering husbands. Because cultural norms prohibit male officers from searching females, women are now reportedly being used more often as mules by drug traffickers. Even in relatively secure and progressive Kabul, recruiting women to the ANP is extremely difficult. The Germans, for instance, built a special 200-bed barracks for female recruits, but the report says that by late 2006, there were only four residents.

- Police are being killed at a staggering rate. Where in 2002, nine were killed in action, 627 were killed last year. In a 52-day period in Kandahar alone last winter, 41 ANP were killed. According to the Interior Ministry, 200 ANP were killed fighting the Taliban from March to June this year. Some estimates say 24 ANP are killed for every Afghan soldier who is killed in action, prompting one unidentified Canadian police trainer to say they are being used as “the canary in the coal mine” in the fight against the Taliban.

- The ANP consists of a handful of forces, including the border police, the Afghan Auxiliary National Police (created on a short-term basis to help fight last year's insurgency and built upon the country's history of tribal militias, the ANAP is criticized harshly in the report), and several others. But even by these admittedly low standards, the Afghanistan Highway Police were deemed so corrupt and so ineffective that the unit was actually disbanded halfway through last year.

- The Interior Ministry, responsible for district administration in Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the police and the counternarcotics fight, has long been considered one of “the most corrupt ministries” in the Kabul government, the report says.

But the most serious kind of corruption is that linked to the poppy trade, “extremely damaging to state-building efforts because it involves the capture of parts of the state apparatus.” The report cites numerous complaints of senior officials accepting huge bribes in exchange for appointing individuals to strategic positions, such as police chiefs in drug-producing provinces.

The only answer, the report says, is long recognized and long overdue: Foreign countries must make their donor aid conditional on comprehensive ministry reform.

With billions of international dollars flowing into Afghanistan and the world paying attention, the report says, likely never again will there be such an opportunity to reform the police. If the opportunity is squandered, “there is a strong possibility that the ANP will continue to be a source of insecurity, rather than security.”

The price paid by Canadians has not been in vain, says Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, who led the Patricias here on the first rotation. “The absolute best that we foreigners can hope for is that our hard soldiering efforts keep the tactical and operational initiative on our side, or at least out of the enemy's hands, until the ANSF forces are strong enough to take over our role.

“This is completely doable, well within our capacity,” he said in a recent e-mail, “provided we are willing to stay the course for a number of years.”

But until then, in at least two districts of Kandahar, it means that Canadians, like Sisyphus, are doomed to push the same rock up the same hill.