GHULAM ALI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Sergeant Chris Padron, a thick-set former cop from Texas turned police trainer in Afghanistan, fixed the group of earnest Afghan policemen with a hard stare and delivered his next question.
“So, if a man beats up on another man, are you going to go and shoot him?”
The interpreter translated into Dari as the group of policemen, sitting uncomfortably on the lower level of a pair of bunkbeds in the station dormitory, shifted their eyes from Padron to the translator, trying hard to concentrate.
“No,” they replied after a moment’s thought, almost in unison, some breaking into smiles, others looking like they’d had to give the question some serious consideration first.
“Good,” said Padron firmly. “Because that would be an inappropriate response.”
The policemen, some of whom have had a decade on the job, were clearly enjoying their training in ‘community policing’, as the one-hour session, complete with colored handouts, was called, but they also had half a mind on lunch.
As Padron was explaining the finer points of arresting and questioning suspects, one of the trainees took a call on his mobile phone and promptly got up and walked out.
Two others, holding hands in the way Afghan men often do when discussing intimate issues, joked about how little they were being paid and began quizzing Padron about his salary.
Asked afterwards if he thought all 10 would turn up for the scheduled three days of training, Padron didn’t try to sugarcoat the situation. “No,” he said without hesitation, a wry smile spreading across his face. “Probably not.”
Around 60,000 Afghan police are now out on the streets, a crucial element in trying to bring security to remote corners of the country, even if the number is small for a nation of Afghanistan’s size, with a population of an estimated 28 million.
While most have received a degree of training -- Germany has been running the Kabul Police Academy since 2002 -- the force is still widely regarded as inefficient, unprofessional and corrupt, especially when compared to the Afghan National Army.
Between 2002 and 2007, Germany spent just $80 million on reforming the police, a miniscule sum considering the scale of the task. The United States is now throwing more into the pot, budgeting $800 million for 2008 for all of Afghanistan’s Western reliant and backed security forces.
But as well as money, what’s needed is on-the-job training, so proper skills can be learnt and immediately put into practice rather than large numbers of officers being hauled off for eight-week-long courses when the lessons are quickly forgotten.
A senior U.S. officer in charge of training told Reuters last week that on top of the 1,000 or so already doing the work, another 1,300 trainers were needed if the Afghan police force is going to be brought up to scratch.
It could be a long while before the United States or its NATO partners come up with the personnel to fill those spots, so in the meantime it’s up to soldiers like Sergeant Padron and his unit to deliver what training they can.
Most days Captain Mike Moeckli and his crew, which includes Padron, head out from Bagram, an air base north of Kabul, into remote communities in the area to visit police commanders and conduct basic workshops.
Monday’s visit to Ghulam Ali, a small town by a river that’s home to the district police headquarters, was supposed to involve three hours of training. It quickly became apparent how difficult it is to stick to schedules in Afghanistan.
First the Americans’ translators turned up late and then it emerged that the police chief, Colonel Gulam Qais, wasn’t there, an absence that prompted hurried Afghan phone calls.
Colonel Qais, a short, serious-looking man with a trimmed beard and henna in his hair, turned up half an hour later saying he’d been out checking on his police checkpoints, which seemed an unusual thing for a senior commander to do, but it was passed over.
While fruit, nuts and tea were served and Colonel Qais took occasional calls on his trilling mobile phone, the Americans asked about the strength of his force, how it was perceived by the locals and what was needed to make it better.
Colonel Qais, speaking through the translators, kept up a steady patter of thanking the Americans profusely for all their help, insisted they stay for lunch and started telling them about corruption among the Afghan guards at the U.S. air base.
The Americans took note of his concerns, as well as those of an Afghan truck driver who said he’d been beaten up, and the conversation dragged on while Padron shifted in his seat, eager to get on with the purpose of the visit.
Ten police officers were finally assembled for the training, taking a while to settle down and insisting that a U.S. military photographer -- a woman -- take pictures of them first.
Padron ran through his course, including the message not to shoot suspects and an effort to get them to understand the need to tackle opium poppy farming, before it was clear attention spans were running short with lunch on its way.
As the course wound up after less than an hour, the police began to moan about their salaries. One hundred dollars a month was not enough to support a family with rising food prices, they all agreed. Padron tried to encourage them to seek promotion.
“I‘m not going anywhere as a policeman,” one officer said forlornly, saying he would leave when his contract was up.
“Why?” asked Padron.
“Because I can’t read or write,” the 30-something man said.
Padron, still holding his colored handouts in a smart folder, looked over at one of the U.S. soldiers at the back of the room, another former cop, who shook his head.
“This is going to take a generation,” the soldier said, acknowledging the mountain to climb. “Maybe longer.”
Editing by Megan Goldin