Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Laying Down the Law

The authorities face a difficult task transforming thousands of former soldiers into professional policemen.
By Shoib Safi

Not so long ago they were Northern Alliance soldiers fighting on a rugged battlefield – now the country’s police force must learn to think and act as civil servants.


The shootings of student demonstrators two weeks ago was, officials admit, a failure on the part of police to show restraint in controlling protests over conditions at Kabul University. But it’s not easy to train the officers, many of them former mujahedeen, for their new role in civil society.


Amir Habibullah, a reserve officer in Kabul, said he wanted to be a policeman when he was a child. But growing up during 23 years of civil war in Afghanistan turned him into a mujahed with the Northern Alliance, and instead of being a police detective he interrogated prisoners of war.


Habibullah said he was saddened by the shootings of student demonstrators because “we weren’t professional, our policemen shouldn’t have shot them”. He’d like to be a more professional officer himself, but says he’s had little training.


With his experience in Northern Alliance, he thinks he deserves the rank of a colonel. The trouble is that he’s only had a basic education and so can’t write reports or handle the administrative and organisational tasks required of a civil police officer.


But Ahmadullah, another reserve officer in the Kabul force, said he dislikes the rules and regulations of civilian policing and misses the freedom and excitement of being a Northern Alliance soldier.


“I have been given the rank of a police officer despite the fact that I don’t have professional training,” he said. “I don’t have any special interest in the police profession, but I am doing it because I don’t have any other job.”


Since he is illiterate and has never attended school, his job prospects are bleak. Yet, in spite of his dislike of the profession, Ahmadullah said he would welcome real training.


After being inactive for a decade, Kabul’s three-year police academy programme – set up under the Najibullah regime and closed when it collapsed in 1992 – was reopened three months ago, with the help of money from Germany. The academy - whose lecturers have received training overseas - currently has around 1,500 full-time students in addition to working police who take short-term professional courses.


But with 9,000 officers in Kabul province and 75,000 nationwide, it will take more than a couple of years to have a fully professional civilian police force.


General Mohammad Daud Askaryar, commander of police academy, said its students are only those who have graduated from high school and don’t have any criminal background.


The academy is also holding classes for the generals working in the interior ministry, many of whom lack professional skills, he said.


Several students who were in the final year of their studies in 1992 now want to return to qualify as policemen.


For the past decade, Hamid has been working in the family business, selling plastic bags. He could have stayed there, but he missed policing – and wants to avoid being drafted for military service. He believes police training is vitally important if the force is going to be accepted by all the country’s ethnic groups, and reckons the current crop of officers have a lot to learn. “ They are not professional, and therefore don’t respect people’s rights,” he said.


Mohammad Arif Noori went home to Paktia province after the academy closed, and worked intermittently as a common labourer in Pakistan to support his four children. He hated the Taleban regime because of its excessive restrictions and never thought he could return to his studies. Now, he says, “I want to be a professional policeman and help society”.


Abdul Ghani, military tactics teacher at the academy, fled to Pakistan in 1992. There he continued to research and write academic works on policing, until he was invited back to the college.


His students learn all the basics of civil police operations, he said, including how to deal with demonstrations, gatherings, meetings and marches. “They are taught special tactics to preserve the rights of the people,” he said.


Asked about the fatal shooting of student protesters, he said this was the action of “bad” police officers.


Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak said the police have been instructed repeatedly not to shoot demonstrators, but most of them have had little or no training in other techniques to deal with civil disobedience and don’t have adequate crowd control equipment either.


“The interior ministry has a lot of problems because it has to start from zero,” he said. “We don’t have tear gas, nor people who could use it properly.”


The minister said police also were thrown off guard by the strength of the demonstrations, but could not explain why they opened fire. The shootings are being investigated by a commission made up of officials from several ministries.


But for all the force’s problems, Wardak insisted that his men were decent and law-abiding, “ Most of the police are brave mujahedeen. They lack proper training and equipment and are not paid well, but they are doing a good job nonetheless,” he said.


Shoib Safi is an independent journalist in Kabul.


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