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This is All Thing Considered from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

In Afghanistan, people's sense of security is rapidly eroding because of growing terrorism and crime. So one of the country's top priorities is building a competent national police force, but the thousands of police officers across the country hardly fit the bill. Many lack training and equipment, even proper uniforms. Low pay has led to widespread corruption and shakedowns of the people the police are supposed to be serving. The U.S. general in charge of training Afghanistan's police has launched a plan to turn things around.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kandahar.

(Soundbite of siren)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The convoy of American humvees barrels along at breakneck speed, sirens blaring out warnings to Afghan drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to get out of the way. It's a necessary annoyance to lessen the chance that any remote-controlled bombs planted along this highway in Kandahar province are set off in time to strike the vehicles.

Here at the convoy's destination, Patrol Base Wilson in volatile Zhari district, American and Canadian military trainers are trying to do something many Afghans believe can't be done - create a police force that will maintain law and order in a country where few feel safe anymore.

Unidentified Man: The key to this area is right down here with the rivers and the roads…

NELSON: Here, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Tom Ritz(ph) talks to his Canadian counterparts about how he'd like to incorporate Afghan police into the battle against insurgents. He wants to combine checkpoints operating independently in the district into one substation.

Lieutenant Colonel TOM RITZ (U.S. Army): If we can patrol out of it, we keep the enemy on their heels and if we keep them on their heels, we'll keep them guessing, maybe they're going to go somewhere else.

NELSON: The Afghan police officers in question are not, around having been removed by Ritz several weeks ago. They've gone to a nearby training center where they are finally learning to be policemen. That's something many Afghan policemen don't know how to be. They are often recruited right off the streets and given little training. Often, they look unkempt and don't have uniforms. They don't know how to be beat cops, let alone fight insurgents. Many smoke hashish. Some demand illegal taxes from drivers on nearby roads.

In many cases, the local police force is more of a militia answering to the local strong men. It's not the national police, U.S. Major General Robert Cone envisions propelling Afghanistan into the future, so he's launched a limited but aggressive program to turn the Afghan police force around. And he's insured pay parity for police officers who meet acceptable standards so they don't earn less than Afghan army privates. His program was launched this year with a focus on some of the country's most dangerous districts.

Major General ROBERT CONE (U.S. Army): I think there are a number of districts, both in Kandahar and Helmand, that frankly are sort of the heart of Taliban country where we think it is particularly important after we've done clearing operations that we have a police force that can come in and earn the trust of the Afghan people and provide them, at least, a first line of defense in security.

NELSON: The program called Focus District Development targets police officers in areas key to commerce and security, mainly in the south and east. Police officers in these districts are being sent to regional training centers. They are staffed by Western military personnel, as well as police officers hired by the U.S. security firm DynCorp, who train the policemen for eight weeks.

As temporary replacements, Afghanistan is sending its new elite unit called ANCOP. They're essentially holding down the fort while the national police gets its house in order. ANCOP is a SWAT team of sorts, drawn from all over the country and trained for some four months. On first glance, these officers offer a vision of what Afghanistan's police force might look like if Cone's program and planned follow-up succeed.

At the Makwan checkpoint, about a 20-minute drive west of Kandahar City, the ANCOP police officers are clean shaven or wear carefully cropped beards. All have crisp uniforms. They also have bulletproof vests - a rarity for police here. At Makwan, they live in a brick hull of the building surrounded by sandbags with no toilet, running water or electricity, save for a small generator to charge their cell phones and radios. They nevertheless take pride in their assignment. The dirt floors are swept clean and there is no trace of drying cannabis plants left behind by the police officers they replaced. The U.S. military says local Afghan leaders are happy with this force whose members reject money offered by drivers used to paying bribes. Across from Makwan, a gas station owner who was ready to close because of the insurgents, opted to keep his business open after ANCOP's arrival.

Army Major Charles Shannon-Gould(ph)was mentoring ANCOP here in Kandahar, meets with the Makwan team to discuss their broken Dishka gun.

Major CHARLES SHANNON-GOULD (U.S. Army): What are we missing - the firing pin?

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaks in foreign language)

Maj. SHANNON-GOULD: (Speaks in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaks in foreign language)

Maj. SHANNON-GOULD: Yeah, shoot. But be careful, there's farmers out there.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaks in foreign language)

NELSON: It's a 50-caliber gun. One of the few heavy guns allotted to the Afghan police. The Dishka is similar to the gun American soldiers have atop their humvees. Gould tells the officers he'll try and get the gun fixed. The ANCOP officers also ask for night-vision binoculars. Gould tells them he can't give them his, but promises to join them overnight so they can patrol together. He's bonded with these guys, whom he respects, and he's optimistic about the police officers they've replaced. But at the regional training center near Kandahar's city, it's clear the national police have a long way to go.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing)

Unidentified Man #2: Gophi(ph), draw a line out here.

NELSON: Here, the policemen from Jedai district stumble into loose formation. Afghan trainers help them get into position. Buck up, you're going to be on international television, the senior trainer warns.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

NELSON: Army Specialist Andrew Shook(ph), is one of their American trainers. He's confident this class will eventually turn out effective police officers.

Specialist ANDREW SHOOK (U.S. Army): I guess the main issue that I see is the role that they want the police to play. State Department would rather have them be more traditional police, but DOD would rather have them be more like a paramilitary force and we're trying to find a balance.

NELSON: Another issue is resources. Major General Robert Cone admits he's stretched thin, that there are simply not enough U.S. military trainers to transform the police quickly.

Maj. Gen. CONE: It will take time to determine if these young Afghan policemen can represent the face of the Afghan government to a satisfactory way. And again it's in the eyes of the people. So we will see.

NELSON: He estimates it will take years to train all of Afghanistan's police. The U.S. Army officers involved in the training here say it will take a generation.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kandahar.

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