A Depressing Day Visiting the Cops

April 21, 2007  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Weblog

Courtesy of a small Romanian convoy, including the armored personnel carrier I traveled in, we visited four Afghan National Police (ANP) outposts along Highway One. Each had a complement of about 15-20 men and each outpost, to my mind, was pathetic.
An Afghan National Police Station with few defenses. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.The first thing you notice about them is that while they have various levels of blast and anti-personnel protection, those levels are all poor. Ideally they would all be surrounded on the outside by razor concertina wire to keep the Taliban at a distance. The inside barriers would be blast protection, a combination of Hesco barriers (huge canvas bags filled with dirt) and sandbags.

In fact, I saw little wire and the Hescos and sandbags protected only part of the perimeter. Some of the buildings had sandbags on the roofs for protection against light mortars, but some didn't. The Afghans for the most part seemed blissfully unaware that they should have these defenses, although at one station they did request of the Romanians more Hescos and wire because they had virtually none.

In terms of weapons and ammunition, they were no better off. I won't give exact numbers for security reasons, but for their AK-47s they couldn't have enough ammo to sustain a decent firefight. At one station they were delighted to inform us not just how many AK magazines but that the magazines were actually completely filled! Ah, the little things in life. It doesn't help that although they have a reputation for bravery and even ferocity, Afghans, like Iraqis, have a tendency not to fire in controlled bursts but to pull the trigger and let fly with all 30 rounds in the hope that God will guide their bullets.

Each station had one 7.62 PK machine gun. These are inferior to the RBKs the Romanians use but at least they sometimes had a decent supply of ammo for them. I got the feeling that the PK was the one thing keeping the Taliban from overrunning the outposts. Yet, not being overrun seemed near the outer limits of what these outposts could do.

At one station they told us, "'We ask in the villages why are you helping the Taliban?' and then they say 'They take our sons and brothers' and there's nothing we can do.'" At another: "We see Taliban driving by on motorcycles but we don't have good weapons to shoot them." The outposts are intentionally positioned high on hilltops and while a PK might be able to hit a stationary target, it would take one heck of a lucky shot to pull off an "Easy Rider" shot from that hilltop in the day. At night it would be all the harder.

All the Romanians can say for now is, "We'll try to give you enough ammo and enough weapons." But for the time being it's a pipe dream, although it shouldn't be. Consider that an AK bullet might cost 10 cents. That's $3 a magazine. For a fifteen-man station, we could provide them each another magazine for $45. Meanwhile, we drop bombs that cost $27,000.

Obviously the ANP stations are in no position to project force, but neither are they overrun very often. The Taliban only carry light weapons, nothing heavier than a PK or RPG with a few rounds. Maybe a small mortar tube but with no base plate, so it can't be fired accurately. That's fine for harassment but not much else. If the fighting did get thick, some ANP stations have radios, some phones, and some both and can call the Romanians. But the Taliban have timed how long it takes the Romanians to arrive and are careful to be gone by then. So the potential of the Romanian firepower is what really counts.

A few of the police wore raggedy blue uniforms and some of the younger ones at one outpost wore winter thick gray uniforms that for all the world looked like what Johnny Reb wore. Even the caps looked like they were copied from civil war uniforms. But most of the police wore civilian clothes, which isn't good. A uniform gives a unit cohesion and it gives a man pride. Not for nothing did the British uniform used to be bright red with tall hats and all sorts of flashy trim. The fighting of that day called for marching straight into enemy muskets and the flashiness gave the soldiers courage.

But for all this, the most important deficiency is that none of the police we saw had been paid in three months. The most obvious problem with this from a tactical perspective is that it discourages recruiting and when those police do finally get paid it will encourage them to desert. Less obvious, except to anybody who knows the history of Afghanistan over the last several hundred years, is that bribes are more important than weapons.

They worked for the British, they helped the Russians greatly in winning support of many of the guerrillas to fight other guerrillas, and it certainly helped the Taliban in their near-conquest of the entire country. It was probably bribes that got Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar out of Tora Bora into Pakistan. For that matter, the conquest of the country from the Taliban began when the CIA flew in cache of $3 million (They would eventually spend many times that) to win over leaders to the Northern Alliance.

So the Taliban know that the most important weapon in their arsenal isn't that AK-47 or RPG, it's the wad of cash supplied by various Arab oil sheikhs, Islamic charity front groups, and Osama bin Laden himself.

Unless we want to stay in Afghanistan forever or risk turning the population against us if they start seeing us as an occupation force, we need to give the Afghan National Army and the National Police the material they need for protection, the weapons they need, the ammunition they need, and proper uniforms, but most importantly we need to pay them.

Then we had a potential SVBIED incident (Suicide Vehicle Borne IED). A couple of trucks by the side of the road simply wouldn't move and we kept our distance waiting. Suddenly one darted towards us and the turret gunner of the APC opened up with the 14.5 mm machine gun. Eight rounds, bigger than .50 cals. I don't know what Afghans wear for underwear but I'll bet that poor driver's was warm and wet.