WASHINGTON - The strategy of the major U.S. and British military offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province aimed at wresting it from the Taliban is based on bringing back Afghan army and police to maintain permanent control of the population, so the foreign forces can move on to another insurgent stronghold.
But that strategy poses an acute problem: The police in the province, who are linked to the local warlord, have committed systematic abuses against the population, including the abduction and rape of pre-teen boys, according to village elders who met with British officers.
Anger over those police abuses runs so high that the elders in Babaji just north of Laskgar Gah warned the British that they would support the Taliban to get rid of them if the national police were allowed to return to the area, according to a Jul. 12 report by Reuters correspondent Peter Graff.
Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso and David Guttenfelder, who accompanied U.S. troops in Northern Helmand, reported Jul. 13 that villagers in Aynak were equally angry about police depredations. Within hours of the arrival of U.S. troops in the village, they wrote, bands of villagers began complaining the local police force was "a bigger problem than the Taliban".
The brutality of the Afghan police toward the civilian population in Helmand was no surprise to Ambassador Ron Neumann, who was the U.S. envoy in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Such abuses, including rape of pre-teen boys, "are part of the larger problem of repression and oppression" in Afghanistan, Neumann told IPS.
Neumann said the problem of police abuses against the population can be traced back to the creation of the national police after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The Afghan police were not created afresh by U.S. and NATO force, Neumann recalls but were "constituted from the forces that were then fighting the Taliban".
In Helmand province, the police came from the militia of the local warlord, former Mujihideen commander Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh, a member of the Alizai tribe, who had dominated the province before the Taliban took control of the Pashtun south in 1994. Akhundzada became the governor of Helmand province in 2002.
The rivals of the Alizai in Helmand are members the Ishaqzai tribe, who become influential in the province during the Taliban period, as noted by Antonio Giustozzi in his book "Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop", published this year.
The restoration of Akhundzada to power gave the warlord and his militia the opportunity to use the police to take revenge on their Ishaqzai rivals. If you are the police under these circumstances, Neumann said, "you take the people's land, their women, you steal from them - it's all part of one package."
The predatory rule of Akhundzada and his militias was interrupted for a second time when the Taliban took control of large areas of the province in 2008.
The Scotsman's Jerome Starkey quoted a shopkeeper in the city of Lashkar Gah, not far from the headquarters of the British and U.S. marine contingents in northern Helmand Jul. 16, as saying that the Taliban "were good for the welfare of ordinary Afghans, for poor people like us." The reason, he explained, was that, "[i]n Taliban times, there was punishment for criminals."
The British and U.S. forces in Helmand province appear to be unprepared to deal with the popular anger over police abuses. The spokesman for the U.S. 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Captain William Pelletier, told IPS in e-mail that he had "no information about the allegations of misconduct" by police reported to British officers, despite the fact that the Marine brigade's headquarters in Helmand are right next to those of the British Task Force Helmand.
Pelletier had not responded as of Wednesday to an IPS query about popular allegations to U.S. officers of police abuses in the U.S. area of responsibility in Helmand.
The spokesman for the British Task Force Helmand, Lt. Col. Nick Richardson, asked in an interview with IPS about the grievances voiced by village elders to British officers, said, "We are aware of those."
He refused to specify what grievances against the police had been aired to the British, but said, "If there is any allegation, it will be dealt with by the appropriate authorities."
That meant the "the chain of command of the Afghan national police", Richardson explained.
But the Afghan national police command has little real power over the police in Helmand Province. As of mid-2007 the national police command controlled the appointments of only four of the 13 districts in Helmand Province, according to an International Crisis Group (IGC) study in August 2007. The remaining nine were evidently controlled locally - meaning that the Akhunzada was able to keep his own men in position in most of the districts.
Although the IGC study did not specify which districts were not controlled by the national police command, the districts which are the objects of the U.S.-British military operation in Helmand are especially sensitive because they include the main opium poppy fields in the province.
Akhundzada maintains his power in Helmand in part because of a firm political alliance with President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai was forced by British pressure to remove Akhundzada from office in January 2006, after a British-trained counter-narcotics team found nearly 10 tonnes of heroin in the warlord's basement.
But Karzai also ensured that Akhundzada retained his full power in Helmand, forcing Akhundzada's replacement as governor, Mohammad Daud, to accept the warlord's brother Amir Mohammed, as his deputy. That signaled that Akhundzada was effectively still in control.
Then Karzai began forming what would eventually be called "Afghanistan National Auxiliary Police", the new recruits for which came straight out of Akhundzada's 500-man private army and those of other warlords.
By the end of 2006, Karzai had removed Daud, a favourite of the British, because he was free of links with the drug lords. Karzai replaced him with an aged and infirm official who was less likely to refuse to cooperate with Akhundzada.
As recently as September 2008, Karzai was hinting to Afghan MPs that he would have reinstated Akhundzada had it not been for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's threat to withdraw British troops from Helmand if he did.
Helmand province is the epicenter of the Afghan drug industry, which generates an annual income for those who manage it estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at three billion dollars. Much of that income is siphoned off by the local warlords like Akhundzada who protect the drug lords' operations.
Although poppy fields in Helmand were supposed to have been eradicated under official government policy, large areas of poppy fields owned by wealthy farmers were untouched, as reported last April by the Telegraph.
Ambassador Neumann told IPS he believes the police should be excluded from security responsibilities in the province. It is not clear, however, whether British and U.S. forces in Helmand will prevent the return of the very police who committed crimes against the population in the province.
The U.S. solution appears to be more training. U.S. troops in Aynak sent the police stationed in the local police headquarters out of the province for several weeks of training, replacing them with a unit they had brought with them, according to an Associated Press report.
But British spokesman Richardson told IPS that both the Afghan military and police, who had been absent from the area before the British offensive in Northern Helmand, "are returning to the area bit by bit".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.