By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
May 27, 2008 - When Army Col. Thomas J. McGrath arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, last year as the commander of the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command, he stopped in on a police checkpoint. Of the 25 Afghan police manning the point, only one had a police shirt on, only one had a weapon, and they all were high on hashish, the colonel said today in a conference call with members of veteran service organizations.
"They were totally disorganized, but that was your police department," McGrath said. "It was pretty scary to think about what wasn't there."
Now, the same checkpoint is manned by 25 fully equipped police officers, all in uniform and professionally trained under a new program called focused district development.
McGrath called the program's inception a "flash of brilliance" and said it has changed the course of the fight in many of Afghanistan's rural districts, where the police once either worked with the Taliban or simply turned a blind eye to their activities.
The training program's goal is to form a standardized, uniformed police force across the country. District by district, all the officers are removed and taken to a regional training facility. They are backfilled in the meantime with members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, a highly trained national police force.
The local police go through eight weeks of training in security and infantry tactics. They are given uniforms, weapons, radios and vehicles, and then return to their district as a transformed force, still under the watchful eye of a squad-sized coalition-force mentor team.
"It's the first time ... they've understood their roles as policemen and how to support their constitution, how to protect lives and protect property of the Afghan populace," the colonel said.
The first district to go through the program was from the Zabol province in the country's south, and so far five districts have completed the program. Three more districts are in training, and McGrath said he plans to have a dozen districts trained in the next few months. The police also, for the first time, are learning to work with their army counterparts.
This has led to an Afghan police force in those areas capable of taking on the Taliban head-to-head. In March and April, police killed about 70 Taliban fighters, McGrath noted.
"That's the first time, and we have the Taliban confused, because they were usually getting along well with the police, or the police were closing their eyes as they passed through," he said. "That changes the entire landscape of the operational design. This is an incredible movement forward for the Afghan people and the Afghan security forces."
The recent arrival of about 1,000 Marines from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., will help boost the training efforts. The Marines will be in Afghanistan for the next seven months, providing police mentorship and security training. McGrath said they will train more than 1,000 police officers before they leave. Across the region, McGrath said, he expects to have up to 3,000 newly trained police officers by fall.
The Marines will move into "hot spots" now controlled by the Taliban where there are few, if any, coalition troops or Afghan National Police, he said.
The Marine unit had a similar mission in Iraq before this deployment. "They bring a lot of experience to the fight. And it's going to be a fight. These are tough areas that they're going into," McGrath said.
Recruiting is up for the police, McGrath said, even in areas with no current police presence. He called the police "fearless" citizens who simply want to train and fight. "I've fought with them in combat, shoulder to shoulder, and I have nothing but the best respect for them."
As successful as focused district development has been, McGrath said, the effort could progress more quickly with more trainers. "My biggest challenge is getting the right number of trainers," he said. "I could move forward even faster if I had more police trainers down here."