Gretchen Peters, investigative journalist and author of “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” proposes a radical solution to the turmoil in Afghanistan: Send in the cops.
President Obama doesn't need to send any more American soldiers to Afghanistan. There's no doubt country needs to be stabilized – and fast. But it would be more effective to send thousands of police officers: beat cops who would know how to walk the streets and round up the criminals who are terrorizing and destabilizing that country.
And I'm not just talking the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
As thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops push into the Helmand River Valley, part of the new counterinsurgency strategy, they are discovering the uncomfortable reality that the Afghan National Police (ANP) in that region are more feared than the Taliban themselves.
Appalling stories of ANP corruption and brutality are emerging from Helmand. They range from stories of police abusing drugs and extorting shopkeepers and truck drivers, to tales of cops threatening villagers, and even abducting and raping their children.
In this atmosphere, it's easy to understand why the Taliban were welcomed back as liberators, despite the horrifying reign of terror they too have imposed. Insurgents now control five of Helmand's 13 districts.
It is critical that international forces bring stability to Helmand, since the fertile province produces more than half of Afghanistan's $4 billion poppy crop. That drug money has not only corrupted state actors, including the ANP and top officials in the provincial and federal governments. It also provides the Afghan Taliban most, if not all, of their operational budget, and helps fund Al Qaeda as well.
Fighting a rich, ruthless and re-invigorated insurgency is a big enough challenge for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the even tougher job will be rooting out state corruption – replacing dirty cops with reliable local security providers. This has to happen relatively quickly, because the Afghan people, after years of intense violence in the south, are losing patience with Western forces there.
Helmand province is like any bad neighborhood – similar to an inner city slum or a tough rural suburb where gangs roam the streets and crooked cops are on the take.
It's doesn't necessarily need a long-term military intervention. It needs law and order and good governance.
I'm not knocking America's troops, who I think are doing a tremendous job in an unbelievably hot, harsh and complex environment. But within that environment, I believe the military would be wise to recognize that there can be wartime value to good old-fashioned police work.
Some infantry units in Afghanistan have begun embedding retired police officers. They are helping American foot patrols to adopt law enforcement techniques that will support the “bottom-up” counterinsurgency strategy.
There are currently about 150 retired police working as advisors to infantry troops in Afghanistan, and the Drug Enforcement Administration is expanding its agents in Afghanistan from about 12 to nearly 80.
That's a good start. But I believe President Obama would be wise to augment the military forces he is deploying to Afghanistan with thousands more police and law enforcement advisors, both to help our own soldiers on the ground, and also to speed up the training of local security forces.
What we really need to stabilize Afghanistan is a super-sized counter-insurgency trained force that can implement law enforcement tactics to root out corrupt state actors and also target anti-state actors like the Taliban. At a time when Washington is facing an enormous budget crunch, I believe trained law enforcement officers would do a more effective job, thus saving this country money in the war effort.
I have great admiration for our military leaders, and their willingness to dramatically shift strategy in Afghanistan. Some of our military leaders embrace the combat policing model that I am advocating; however other U.S. commanders appear to shun it completely. And unfortunately, our current military training program still does little to prepare American soldiers and Marines to do street-level police work.
It's partly a question of expectations. President Obama himself has narrowed the goal in Afghanistan to rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts, rather than trying to achieve lasting democracy and a thriving Afghan economy.
I think this narrowing of focus is a mistake, and is founded on misguided attitudes here in the West about the Afghan people.
I have worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade and I dispute analysts who argue that the people of the border regions are savage and ungovernable. Wherever I have gone and wherever my local assistants have conducted research, we have heard over and over that people there want security, rule of law and more stable communities.
That is not only the correct moral approach to the war in Afghanistan; it is the best exit strategy we have. We will never defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda by trying to kill them all. We will win when they become irrelevant.
Gretchen Peters is the author of “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda”