By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 31, 2007 - A new U.S. command in southern Afghanistan is working to improve the martial capabilities of local police officers who confront battle-hardened Taliban insurgents, a senior U.S. officer said today. "We have to teach the police how to act militarily," Army Col. Thomas J. McGrath, commander of Afghan Regional Security Integration Command South, told Internet reporters and "bloggers" during a conference call from Afghanistan.
Afghan police officers are the first responders to incursions by heavily armed Taliban militants, McGrath explained. Therefore, the police need infantry skills, appropriate weaponry and other resources, he said, so they can effectively engage the Taliban.
"When the Taliban show up to come through their village, they have to be able to stand and hold," McGrath said.
McGrath's command is based in Kandahar. It was stood up about two months ago in an area of Afghanistan where the Taliban are particularly active.
"The greatest challenge, I think, is the training part. We have to find locations so that we have the capacity to train large numbers of (Afghan) soldiers and police," McGrath said.
The Afghan National Army "is in good shape," McGrath observed. However, more work must be done to increase the capabilities of Afghan police, he said.
McGrath described southern Afghanistan as a vast, isolated landscape of desert areas interspersed with mountains. The concept of policing is a relatively new concept in the region, he explained, as tribal-elder rule has for ages served as the means for arbitration of differences and as a dispenser of justice.
Policing in southern Afghanistan "is just different," McGrath acknowledged, when contrasted with constabularies in other countries. Most law-and-order functions, he said, are handled by the tribes.
"My challenge right now is developing police training that's integrated with the Afghan National Police, Afghan National Auxiliary Police and the border police," McGrath explained. That task, he said, entails structured, hands-on instruction that's conducted by a cadre of joint-service U.S. military members, coalition partners, and civilian contractors.
Incompetent or undisciplined police officers are being identified and dealt with, McGrath said.
"Now, we're weeding those guys out quickly and trying to bring in a much more professional force that can stand up to the Taliban and give the locals a sense of security," the colonel said.
Counterterrorism operations in southern Afghanistan also involve "a big carrot" of public-outreach programs to local villagers that provide medical care, schools, roads, and other needed services, McGrath explained. The program, he said, is designed to persuade rural Afghans to reject the Taliban and thus emerge from a decades-old cycle of war and poverty.
Most Afghans would like to rid themselves of the Taliban, whom McGrath described as a vicious group of thugs that deliberately places villagers in harm's way during battles with U.S. and coalition forces.
Reports saying U.S. forces rely on air power at the expense of Afghan civilians are "dead wrong," McGrath asserted. U.S. and coalition military planners, he said, go to great lengths to prevent the occurrence of human or structural collateral damage.
Unfortunately, some Afghan civilians have died during U.S. or coalition air strikes against the enemy, McGrath acknowledged. But, such incidents are accidental and not deliberate, he emphasized.
"We don't just rely on air power. We don't just stand back and let them bomb the hell out of a village," McGrath said. "That is just absolutely wrong and untrue."