Getting to community policing in Afghanistan

by Captain A. Heather Coyne

When I arrived at the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A), I found they’d created a new position to draw on my background with NGOs and civil society.  They asked me to create channels to the NGOs and international organizations and “make good things happen.”  NTM-A’s leadership recognized the importance of civil society involvement in our mission to train and reform the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), but wasn’t yet sure how to engage those actors.

So my first months were largely spent reaching out to Afghan civil society organizations and their international supporters, with the goal of ensuring that civil society could play a role in shaping ANSF training and reform.  We quickly discovered that while a few NGOs were interested in the Afghan Army (in terms of preventing civilian casualties, training the ANA on human rights and conflict management, and preventing underage recruitment), most NGOs were focused on the behavior of the Afghan National Police, which has more extensive interaction with the population than the ANA.  The NGOs’ interest was in increasing accountability and responsiveness of the ANP to the communities they serve.

Some NGOs are already active in such efforts, through training for the police and consultations between police and citizens.  But their initiatives were mostly small, isolated, ad hoc.  The efforts weren’t institutionalized into the training base or the ministerial structures, they had to fight constantly to get access to police units and funding, and they weren’t building momentum. So the key was to strengthen and expand existing efforts, making regular, positive interaction and accountability between police and communities part of the standard operating procedure for Afghanistan.

One part of doing that is to standardize the things that are already working so that we don’t have gaps and duplication, with everybody recreating things from scratch at great cost and to different standards.   For example, in one case, a unit had experimented with training police how to deliver briefings on IED awareness to kids in schools.  It was an absolutely brilliant idea. The kids loved it, the teachers were impressed that the police would provide such a service, the police felt proud of themselves for probably the first time ever in a job widely perceived to be populated by criminals and addicts…it’s no wonder we’re struggling with up to 70% attrition when the police are so widely distrusted by the Afghan people.

So this program was a stroke of genius.  Not only did it build the public’s respect for the police, but also ANP’s own self esteem, allowing them to take pride in providing a real public service.  But when our IED expert looked over the curriculum, he said, “Um, I think they may be giving kids information on how to make their own pressure plates for IEDs.”  So, a little quality control is in order, but the concept was sound and is now being institutionalized into an ANP safety outreach campaign to schools and communities.

The other part of it is, strangely enough, almost the opposite.  Not only do we need to systematize and standardize these efforts—we also need to adopt a “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach.  Show people what is possible, and then let them be creative about how and whether they want to be involved.  For instance, we started telling people about the first experiments with community consultations, which were basically facilitated dialogues between community members and police about neighborhood security.  Other organizations started to propose their own spin on this—one envisioned longer workshops that start with trust building exercises and defining expectations of each side for the other.  Next a network of 70 local radio stations suggested holding the interactions through radio—interviewing the police and community leaders together, and broadcasting their agreements so that all the local listeners could be part of holding them to their promises.  Another offered training for citizen journalists to track the progress of anything agreed to in the workshops.  Facilitating the information flow will help communities see what is happening elsewhere and decide whether they want to try those things themselves, refining them for their own context.

These approaches seem contradictory, but they don’t have to be.  We can set up a system that ensures a basic level of quality, but encourages people to be creative within those standards.  NGOs and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) can set basic standards together for what police community engagement should involve and agree that programs meeting those standards will get the access they need.  At the same time we must ensure that all the experiments are shared in a way that allows people to build on what’s been tried, and refine it, without having to start from scratch.  And that they can obtain the resources they need to reach full capacity of what they can offer, without injecting so many resources that it distorts the market away from the groups who are committed to change in their own communities.

The goal at the end of this is for any police commanders or mentors to be able to reach back and get a standard package of training and material, and assistance in making local connections that will help them engage their communities effectively, based on the specific situation in their areas.  It must be done in a way that builds ministry capability to manage these programs.  And it must be done through Afghan local organizations that have legitimacy with the people and can sustain the process of engagement with the MOI—so they are “pulling the string instead of us pushing it,” as the Army likes to say.

The plan and the programs came together quickly, but it turned out to be harder to gain support from our own system than from the Afghan civil society and police.

You might think it would be an easy sell.  We know that that people deeply distrust the police and are unwilling to cooperate with them on reporting insurgent activity and crime.  We know that negative public perception also causes problems for recruitment and retention—impacting our main effort: the growth of the ANSF.  And even more importantly, we know that the level of alienation of citizens from the police, the most visible face of government, often drives people to join or help the insurgency.  We know that building public confidence in the police is essential, it’s at the top of all our plans and strategies.  So you’d think we’d jump at an opportunity to bring police and people together to build relationships and trust.  Indeed, our top leadership did, encouraging us to launch the initiatives.  But the mechanics of NTM-A just weren’t built for these programs, and we found ourselves blocked at multiple levels.

There is built-in resistance to them at an emotional, conceptual level. It just doesn’t fit with the mentality of fighting a war.  “Community relations” comes across as touchy feely, hippy skippy.  It doesn’t seem like a priority to the average military person when the police are being shot at and ambushed every day.  They think in terms of hardening and strengthening, more capacity to fight back, because that’s what soldiers do, that’s the military response to being targeted.  But it’s not the police response, or shouldn’t be.  If you read Peel’s Principles of Policing from a couple hundred years ago, the police response should be almost the opposite. These principles emphasize the dependence of law enforcement on public trust and support, and that public cooperation diminishes proportionally to the use of force and compulsion.  The more that police make themselves inaccessible or intimidating to the public to protect themselves, the less public support they can win, and the more they will be targeted.  Good, solid community engagement programs are exactly the right response to the threat, they are a vital part of counter-insurgency (COIN).

In effect, we have set up a dichotomy between COIN and civilian/community policing.  We’ve created a competition in our minds between “COIN” by which we mean hunting the insurgents and killing them, and “civilian/community policing” by which we mean all those law enforcement and community service activities that are the tasks of the police in a normal society.  We don’t see that civilian policing is an integral part of COIN, not its competitor.  It’s equally if not more important than the “kinetic” activities of knocking down doors and shooting insurgents.   If people feel they can trust their police, they’ll be more willing to share intelligence about the bad guys, and when people feel that their security forces and their government are there to protect and serve, not to extort and abuse, they will be less likely to turn to the insurgency in the first place.

Another part of the emotional resistance comes from the fact that telling people we’ve neglected this aspect makes them defensive, like all the huge efforts we’ve put into improving police training have been meaningless.  That’s not the case—we’ve made giant strides and our training programs are now putting better, more professional police out on the streets.  But making better police in the academies is only one side of the equation.  We also need to look at how public interacts with the police, and how citizens can play a  role in making police more accountable and responsive to communities, so that we aren’t the only watchdog in town.  This is key to the longer-term goal of transition.  We must open channels for Afghan communities to participate in how police operate and behave, and apply their own pressures to them, rather than our always being responsible for police behavior.

Finally, we have to overcome the suspicion that the programs are “fluffy” or one-offs.  Real community programs get at real issues, it’s not about the police giving away toasters or throwing parties hoping that will make people like them.  But the military may not always recognize issues as real that civilians see that way. For instance, we proposed training for the Fire Police to brief schools on fire safety, only to be told that firefighting does not include fire safety. To a firefighter, it is obvious that prevention and public education are essential to firefighting, but to the military, those things seem like “nice to haves” that have no place in a war effort.

Our ideas were all developed with police professionals from EUPOL, UN, GPPT and civil society organizations that have been working with police for years.  The engagements were developed to resonate with the people based on their own interests and institutions, providing a safe space for police and people to build lasting relationships around security issues.

But as hard as it was to change mindsets about the value of civilian policing, it was even harder to get through the legal barriers.  The funding we have is authorized for “direct support of the Afghan National Security Forces” and restricts us from providing any services or benefit to community members.  At the same time, CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) prohibits funding for police.  So anything where police are helping the community or community are helping police, or they are doing things together, is off limits.  That meant that every program I’d been developing so carefully with the NGOs and police experts fell into the same black hole for funding.  For example, sports training that would bring communities and police together regularly to build relationships—can’t provide training for those civilians, they aren’t ANSF.  But the sports training is being given to the police, we are just adding in a few community members?  Nope, those slots could instead be used for police, the civilians are displacing them and we can’t pay for them to be trained.  Same reaction to the idea of joint police-community literacy classes: since we’re already providing literacy to the police and often have some extra seats, why not fill them with community members, giving them a chance to interact in a positive environment?  Not allowed.  Even safety outreach to the schools, ANP briefing kids on first aid, IED awareness, etc.—that’s providing a benefit to the community not to the police so you can’t do it.  At one point, the review board manager looked at a proposal for community-police consultations to build public confidence and said “Can’t you just leave the community out of it? Then we could fund it.”

Fortunately, the US Embassy stepped in to fund initial pilots on police/community consultation while NTM-A worked out appropriate funding mechanisms and workarounds, including collaborative arrangements with the UN to address the constraints on providing benefits to non-ANSF.  That collaboration has been facilitated by a new working group including all the international community, MOI, and Afghan civil society stakeholders in civilian policing.  And just last month, NTM-A approved $7 million for a package of police engagement initiatives that will be implemented through the UN’s Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA).  LOTFA management allows for a more comprehensive approach, because it facilitates involvement of NGOs as well as leveraging other International Community programming.

$7 million is a modest start for a critical aspect of police training and reform that has been largely neglected since the beginning of the war.  But between NTM-A’s new commitment, an upswell in interest from MOI leaders, and improved coordination between civilian policing stakeholders, community-police engagement efforts have the chance to make up nine years of lost ground.

CPT A. Heather Coyne

NGO/International Organizations Liaison

NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/CSTC-A

Camp Eggers, Afghanistan

“Shohna ba Shohna – Ooga-pa-Ooga – Shoulder to Shoulder”

3 Responses to Getting to community policing in Afghanistan

  1. […] to be perceived as simultaneously serving the community while protecting it against insurgency. Community engagement programs and “effective governance” are touted as the ultimate best defense against insurgents but there […]

  2. […] to be perceived as simultaneously serving the community while protecting it against insurgency. Community engagement programs and “effective governance” are touted as the ultimate best defense against insurgents but […]

  3. […] to be perceived as simultaneously serving the community while protecting it against insurgency. Community engagement programs and “effective governance” are touted as the ultimate best defense against insurgents but […]

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