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Police officers live dangerously

by Hartmut Staudt

In depth

 “We practised evidence gathering and fingerprinting  at simulated crime scenes”

 “We practised evidence gathering and fingerprinting at simulated crime scenes”

The German Police Project Team (GPPT) has been advising government agencies in Afghanistan since 2002. Hartmut Staudt, who heads criminal investigations in the German city of Ludwigshafen, speaks of the time he spent as a trainer in Fayzabad and Kabul last year. [ Interview with Hartmut Staudt ]

What was your assignment in Afghanistan?
I was seconded to the GPPT to train Afghan police officers from March to June 2009. Along with two colleagues, I first spent five weeks in Fayzabad and then another eight weeks in Kabul. In both places, we ran several one-week courses in forensics and crime-scene investigation for 20 to 25 Afghan colleagues each. We took along forensic kits, which we used to practise evidence gathering and fingerprinting at simulated crime scenes. The proceedings were recorded on video or with digital cameras and later discussed with the group.

What is the police infrastructure like in Afghanistan?
It was shocking. Anyone who thinks the police service in Afghanistan is anything like as organised as in Germany is very much mistaken. The set up may be similar in larger cities, but standards in rural areas are not at all like in Europe. In many cases, you can’t tell a police station from outside. Many stations consist of a simple building, often with only one room. Equipment is basic. Everything – vehicles, uniforms and office materials – is in short supply. There are not many computers, which is partly due to the fact that many Afghan police officers are unable to operate them. Some are even illiterate. We noticed that in the classroom. The participants would listen attentively, but hardly anyone took notes.

What qualifications are required to become a police officer in Afghanistan?
New recruits need to be able to read and write – and they need to pass an entrance test. But the requirements are nothing like what we demand in Germany. Recruits undergo no physical fitness training, for example, until they start basic training. The physical-­training facilities at the National Police Academy in Kabul are first-rate, how­ever, complete with fitness trail, simu­lated trenches and up-to-date training rooms. Germany really invested money. Bigger question marks, however, apply to the training and qualifications of older, long-serving police officers.

Is being a police officer a respected occupation in Afghanistan? Are there many applicants?
Training as a police officer is the only chance many Afghans have to earn ­money and feed their family. The young men often come from rural areas, where a salary equivalent of € 200 per month is a lot of money. But there are two problems.
– First, corrupt superiors tend to withhold some or even all of the money. Corruption is one of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces, and it obviously affects the police, even though no one says it out loud.
– Second, a high number of officers are killed. Anyone who joins the Afghan police lives dangerously from that point on. In rural areas especially, the police frequently clash with the militias of local warlords, who do not appreciate police presence in their territory. Targeted murder is a daily occurrence.

Do Afghans see the police as “friends and helpers”, as the ­German saying goes?
Germany’s friend-and-helper image does not reflect how Afghanistan’s police force relates to society. Because of corruption, Afghans tend to be afraid of the police. Often it is really doubtful whether the police can actually be of any help. These things often depend on clan chiefs’ attitudes. It is utopian to think that Afghanistan might, in the next few years, set up anything like the German style emergency call system, where police officers on duty respond instantly when somebody gives them a ring and notifies them of a grievance.

What challenges do Afghan police officers face in daily life – in contrast to Germany?
Afghan officers definitely have to fear more for their lives; there are targeted attacks. Relations with local people are also fraught with danger. There is a weapon in every home; guns are considered household utensils, like cutlery. Murder rates are high, which is why we thought it was a good idea to run a forensics course – on the other hand, many murder cases are never brought to trial. The daily duties of an Afghan police officer also differ between town and country. In Kabul, the police have a strong presence, performing roadside checks and controlling traffic. None­theless, I did not get the impression that they are enforcing law and order. In rural areas and places like Fayzabad, the police are less visible. It is hard to perceive clear and effective operations.

How well were you accepted as a trainer?
We were accepted very well by our Afghan colleagues. A lot of the forensics was new to them, but they were eager to learn, and worked well with the material we had brought along.

What was easy and what was hard to get across to trainees?
The Afghans were very open to the forensic procedures. They also asked lots of questions about German police work – for example, how we obtain confessions, whether we use torture, whether we have the death sentence. Obviously, two worlds with different sets of values were clashing. Our Afghan colleagues struggled to understand that suspects in Germany can simply refuse to give evidence without fear of any consequences. Many also found it hard to believe that we cooperate as equals with female police officers.

Are there women in the Afghan police force?
Officially, yes. But I saw only one female police officer myself: a police general in Kabul. But I do know a female colleague in Mainz who spent several weeks in Afghanistan training women for police service.

What is needed to create a loyal and effective police force in Afghanistan?
From a distance, the question is whether anything similar to German standards can be achieved at all. Perhaps we are just chasing a pipe dream. We need to question the yardsticks we use. We cannot say everything we do is good and everything you do is bad. It is inappropriate to draw a direct comparison between German and Afghan police.

In 2000, you worked for the UN ­Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). How did that work differ from your assignment in Afghanistan?
Post-war Kosovo had no police force. All policing was done by UN staff, and responsibility was handed back to Kosovan security forces only gradually. So most of the police on the ground were foreign officers working according to UN standards. Moreover, the idea of Europe was much stronger. On GPPT mission to Afghanistan, we only act as advisers.
I do not think it would be an option for foreigners to completely take over police duties in Afghanistan as was the case in Kosovo. We need to be patient and keep on improving the coordination of Afghan and foreign contributions to police reform.

Questions by Cathrine Schweikardt.