LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Securing the volatile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority for American officials. It's a job they believe Afghanistan's border police should do rather than the NATO-led coalition there. But by most accounts the Afghan border guards are not up to the task. The force is seen as understaffed, poorly trained, and corrupt. And while the international coalition has focused on training Afghanistan's army and national police in recent years, the Afghan border police have been pretty much ignored. That is, until recently.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent two weeks traveling with U.S. troops to places along the border, which stretches 1500 miles. In this second of two stories on securing the frontier, she looks at U.S. efforts to strengthen the border police.
(Soundbite of vehicles)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's a painful and treacherous ride to the border posts in this corner of Paktia province, even in these four-wheel drive pickups the Americans recently donated to Colonel Bismullah and his men.
Col. BISMULLAH (Afghan Border Police): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Bismullah, a soft-spoken former teacher who heads the battalion of Afghan border police here, says the single-lane dirt and rock road is particularly difficult in the winter, when this 9,000-foot-high area called Gaway is covered in ice and snow.
Col. BISMULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: His border guards, who live in mud huts, say they don't have anything — not even a shovel — to clear a path. So they simply kick at the snow or use the new pickups to create ruts.
Still, this border police battalion is in better shape than most in Afghanistan.
The guards here are part of a new American program to beef up the police force along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Along with the 31 new Ford pickups, Bismullah's men are receiving intensive training, new guns and ammunition, and other equipment, much of it issued at regional training centers run by the State Department.
The State Department, despite repeated requests, refused to let NPR see the training, which in this part of Afghanistan is provided by DynCorp.
Border police officers are also being mentored by U.S. troops eager to teach them how to search and patrol the tree-covered mountains here.
U.S. Major General Richard Formica heads the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, which is working to strengthen the Afghan military and police. He says Afghans need to take care of their own borders.
Major General RICHARD FORMICA (Combined Security Transition Command): Would it be easier for the coalition to do that? Maybe. Would it be right? Heck no. This is about building the capability and capacity for the Afghans.
NELSON: The border guards in Gaway look like they could use the help. They say they can't see much from their posts, which are surrounded by trees and peaks. But they don't go on patrol a lot either, relying instead on feral dogs to attack people sneaking across the border via remote goat trails or forest paths.
Nor do these guards always check the handful of cars that cross here. The guards barely glance at this pickup that rumbles past, hauling a mound of unseen items covered by a tarp. The driver is a local, they say dismissively, just a shopkeeper who went to Pakistan for the day.
Nevertheless, Gaway is one of the safer parts of the long, porous border that insurgent groups use to re-supply their fighters and seek sanctuary from Afghan and Western forces.
While militants linked to fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar cross back and forth here, the Afghan tribes around Gaway are loyal to the government in Kabul. Tribal men make up most of the force here, as they do in Khost and Paktika provinces to the south.
That's due in part to the Afghan major general in charge of the border police in this three-province region, Nabi Jan Molakheil.
Major General NABI JAN MOLAKHEIL (Afghan Border Police): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: A bearded officer who wears a camouflage uniform, Molakheil alternates between cajoling and browbeating village elders and local strongmen to support the government in Kabul over insurgents like Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Haqqani was linked to the bombing of a luxury hotel in Kabul in January of 2008 and founded a militant network in Khost province.
Major General MOLAKHEIL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Supporting such men isn't jihad, it's a crime against humanity, General Molakheil argues, banging his fist on a table during a recent tribal gathering in the province's Terrazai district.
He's been persuasive enough to get nearly 700 new recruits recently from Khost in the neighboring border provinces. Recent raises and new bonuses for border guards have also helped.
But Molakheil still has just over half of the border guards he is supposed to have. That's partly because his battalion commanders have lied about how many men they had on their rosters in the first place, a lie that allowed them to pocket Western money being paid for border police salaries and upkeep.
A third of his commanders were removed last year after being accused of corruption. Two more were summoned to the interior ministry in Kabul in the past couple weeks to answer similar charges.
American advisers to the border police say in the future there will be more oversight, which should keep corruption in check. For one thing, U.S. trainers are collecting fingerprints and other information from each officer who goes through the eight-week training, so they know exactly who is on the force.
Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Kent, a Guardsman from Laramie, Wyoming, who is the Afghan General's senior American adviser, says the training is also beneficial to curbing bad behavior on the part of the Afghan border police officers.
He says the graduates from the State Department-run training centers not only look and act more polished, but are more confident and motivated to protect their country.
Lt. Col. RAYMOND KENT (Adviser): I had team chiefs who are guardsmen who are police officers back home. And you know, they keep calling me up and saying this is amazing, because they are doing the takedowns, they are doing the detainee ops exactly how they do it in America.
NELSON: Kent says last month some of the new graduates from Paktika province set up traffic checkpoints that led to the arrests of several insurgents linked to roadside bombs and attacks on Afghan and coalition forces.
Last month's reassignment of a U.S. Army battalion from the battlefield to the border to mentor Molakheil's men will allow for a lot more one-on-one training and spot checks.
Still, not everyone is convinced beefing up the border police to secure the border is the answer - like Christine Fair, who co-authored a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report on the need for a game-changing strategy in Afghanistan.
She worries that the Americans are building up Afghan forces like the border police in order to help the U.S.-led coalition fight the growing insurgency and not because of Afghanistan's needs.
Ms. CHRISTINE FAIR (Institute of Peace): And so it is very ironic that we are trying to build a sovereign state that can't even afford the security architecture that we're building for it.
NELSON: She predicts that even with a larger and better-trained border police force, the insurgency will continue to grow in response to the increasing number of American and NATO troops who are coming here.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from eastern Afghanistan.
WERTHEIMER: You can hear the first part of our series about protecting the border and see photos of conditions in the remote area at npr.org.