MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. If American policy is ever to be successful in Afghanistan, it will be because of people like Army Major Jim Contreras. He is the top American police trainer in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Afghan police are key to fighting insurgents. They know the neighborhoods, the people, who is an insurgent, and who is not.
NPR's Tom Bowman traveled to Helmand province and sent us this report.
TOM BOWMAN: Major Contreras gazes out the bullet proof window of his Cougar, a massive armored vehicle - picture a Brinks truck on steroids. It rolls down the dusty main street of Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital of Helmand province. As we talk to the major over the vehicles radio, kids run toward the rolling line of American armor, waving and hoping some candy will fly out.
Major JIM CONTRERAS (National Guardsman; Police Trainer, Afghanistan): Well, we only do it out of the last vehicle, because if you throw it in between the vehicles, it's just too dangerous, because the kids here have no fear. I don't know if it's they have no fear, or they just have no sense of walking in the middle of the street like they do back in the States.
Unidentified Man: They're throwing rocks, from the right.
Maj. CONTRERAS: Got it.
BOWMAN: They're throwing rocks?
Maj. CONTRERAS: Yeah.
BOWMAN: Contreras contends the rocks are not necessarily anti-American - more like kids back home throwing snowballs at passing cars. He's 42, a pleasant and compact National Guardsman from Richmond, Virginia, where he sells surgical equipment. Here, he's part of task force Phoenix, the American effort to train police.
Contreras commands several police training teams in Helmand, a haven for Taliban insurgents, and the main source of their cash - the poppy fields that produce heroin. Even here in the capital, it's too dangerous for foot patrols.
Maj. CONTRERAS: We could probably do it, but, you know, all it takes on a foot patrol is one potshot, you know, the Ten Dollar Tabie or whatever.
BOWMAN: What they call Ten Dollar Tabies, those disaffected and unemployed who are recruited by the Taliban. Officials think they make up the bulk of the insurgency.
Maj. CONTRERAS: Yeah, they need a job, and that's a job just like anything else out here. So if you go after the infrastructure, it takes away that $10-a-day Taliban and they can make $12 a day doing something productive.
BOWMAN: So a strong economy is key. What's needed before that can happen, say Contreras and others, is security. There are now about 3,000 Afghan police in the entire province. That number has to double, say American and British trainers. They say that with the thousands more American troops that are now coming in as part of the new American strategy for Afghanistan, they can expand the training teams and bring in more police.
Contreras pulls into a vacant lot. There are piles of debris and trash, and a low concrete building. This was once an asphalt company.
Maj. CONTRERAS: So what we're going to do is just make this a temporary training site, that's going to be a tent city, so we have the capability of training 200 police just like that within eight weeks. It all comes down to the resources.
BOWMAN: A cluster of men gathers around the Americans. Among them is a 45 year old policeman named Nawab(ph), a small thin man with a full beard and sunglasses. His oversized pants are cinched tight with a thick black belt. Nawab says through an interpreter that he was once a farmer in a province north of here, but security was so bad he decided to come to Helmand province with his wife and seven children to join the police.
Why aren't you still a farmer?
Mr. NAWAB (Policeman): (Through Translator) Because if there is no security in my country, definitely, I cannot work as a farmer. A farmer also needs security, so I have to work to secure the area, then I can start working on my farm.
BOWMAN: He says there's been a terrible toll among his police colleagues.
Mr. NAWAB: (Through Translator) 45 police were killed. That is starting from last year up to now.
BOWMAN: Police here are four times more likely to die than an Afghan soldier. Over Nawab's shoulder is the twisted wreckage of a police vehicle. It was destroyed in a suicide blast a few weeks ago, killing four people. That doesn't seem to bother the group of young men listening to Nawab. They say they are working for a private security company. What they really want is to join the police.
Mr. NAWAB: (Through Translator) That's why we are here. We have left our family and our house and our relatives just because - to join the police.
BOWMAN: Contreras and his armored convoy rumble toward the provincial police headquarters, a fortress-like compound. Inside the headquarters is a command center, a long narrow room with a bank of computers and phones. On the walls are detailed maps of each district. Police and army forces use this center to chart their patrols.
British army Lieutenant Colonel Jasper De Quincy Adams spends about four nights a week here, working with the provincial police chief, part of the mentoring efforts.
Lieutenant Colonel JASPER DE QUINCY ADAMS (British Army): The police by default are going to be very much right on the front line of an insurgency, because they are in with the population, in small, isolated locations often, and operating really at the very, very extreme ends of risk.
BOWMAN: De Quincy Adams and his American partners say they are two years behind in training the police. Iraq sucked away troops and money. Until now, most of the allied effort has been directed toward training and equipping the Afghan army. Colonel De Quincy Adams is looking forward to the thousands more U.S. Marines.
Lt. Col. DE QUINCY ADAMS: They understand counterinsurgency probably better than any other single organization. So we're really confident that they will come to very similar conclusions that we have, and that is that investing to train the indigenous forces is one of the prerequisites to success.
BOWMAN: Until the Marines are in place, the job will fall to the British, along with Contreras and his training teams. Outside are a line of green Ford Broncos, brand new SUVs. They are the same model as that mangled one back at the vacant lot.
Maj. CONTRERAS: They have a higher suspension, bigger tires. They have a machine gun mount on the back roll bars for the PKM, which is their, like, general purpose machine gun.
BOWMAN: But the challenge here in Helmand province goes beyond simple numbers of police. There's a continuing worry of Taliban infiltration, or police recruits who quit because of threats against their families. In another province, three quarters of the recruits quit. There is also the more widespread question of corruption, a previous police chief was fired for that reason, and there are suspicions that the current chief is involved in narcotics.
BOWMAN: Contreras continues down the road toward his base, rimmed by large sandbag walls and razor wire. He'll leave here at the end of the summer and head back home. He hopes the training site will be up and running by then.
Maj. CONTRERAS: I want to start seeing bulldozers there. I'm hoping to see a completed training started. I want to see more police on the street.
BOWMAN: Contreras has another hope. His 18-year-old son Justin recently joined the Virginia National Guard. The major hopes his efforts will take hold, so his son won't have to follow him here.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan.
NORRIS: And you can see a photo gallery of the American police trainers at npr.org.