U.S. leaders often say developing a strong Afghan army will be the key to stabilizing the region after Western forces leave. But one general who oversaw southwestern Afghanistan says stabilization lies in the hands of the Afghan police.
With most of the attention still focused on clashes with the Taliban, U.S. officials typically say the lynchpin to a functional Afghanistan after 2014 will be the country's military. However, U.S. and NATO officials have also hurriedly been building a 352,000-troop police force—already is in control of several provinces—that will be crucial to keeping the region stable once Western forces withdraw.
Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who was NATO's Regional Command Southwest chief until last month, says Afghanistan's national police force "is the key."
"As a military, we have taken this pretty far," he told reporters Tuesday in Washington. "But we need to start handing it over to the law enforcement professionals."
Toolan says the police will be more important because they will be responsible in the decades to come for security in villages, cities and provinces as the Afghan military focuses on securing the troubled nation's borders and dealing with outside threats.
"The military wants to be on the border," Toolan says. "That's a good thing."
Analysts say Toolan's impulse is correct.
"That's the normal division of labor," says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "The military is the external forces and the police do the internal security."
While U.S. and NATO officials have been praising recent progress in developing a more capable Afghan military, the police force is a different story. Efforts to develop the Afghan National Police force have sputtered for nearly a decade, besieged by corruption, defectors and other problems.
"We have to be careful," Toolan warns. "I'm not sure the police is ready. The police needs work."
"The police lags far behind the Afghan army," says Bensahel. "Those in the police are from the villages to which they're assigned. So they're directly tied into the black market and other parts of the local culture that we in the West call corruption."
"In terms of capabilities that translate well into policing, the Afghan army has been given greater expertise over the last five years because the police was unable to do those things," Bensahel says. "There are real questions about whether the National Police can even catch up."
In recent weeks, Afghan police officers have been involved in a string of shootings that have killed U.S. troops and other Afghan police personnel. That violence, including allegations that some were Taliban members, has cast new doubts on the U.S. and NATO goal of withdrawing in 2014.
U.S. military and Afghan officials are in talks about how large the indigenous security and police force should be beyond the Western withdrawal date. Pentagon officials have said it will remain at 352,000 for at least a year after most American troops are gone.
But looking into 2015, U.S. and Afghan officials believe the total indigenous military and police force will have to shrink to 230,000, because Kabul's meager coffers will be unable to support a larger force for very long. And that means the police will become more important as time goes on, because the Afghan military will have fewer troops to spare for policing in villages and provinces.