KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Diverted at the last minute from its planned deployment to Iraq, a battalion of Marines has arrived here to take up a critical mission: training Afghan police to hold the line against Taliban insurgents.
Marine Lt. Col. Rick Hall, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is upbeat about the prospect of readying a professional police force, despite significant challenges that have so far defeated a six-year, $5.5 billion U.S. police recruiting and training program.
"Afghans have a natural warrior mentality and will have a common bond" with Marines, Hall said in an interview. He says he believes the Afghan police recruits will quickly absorb the Marines' standards.
"Just by our presence, they [police trainees] are going to be improved."
A strong national police force is considered key to any counter-insurgency and especially so in Afghanistan, where the government presence in much of the country is thin or nonexistent. It would also allow for the gradual draw-down of U.S. forces here. At present, there are about 30,000 American troops here and some 28,000 coalition forces.
Yet the Afghan national police force is woefully undermanned, under-paid and poorly equipped, according to U.S. officials. With millions of dollars worth of opium passing through southern Afghanistan, corruption in the police force is entrenched, they said.
In some regions, police are paid $70 a month, when the cost of living for a small family is $130 a month, according to Army Lt. Col Brian Mennes, who recently completed a 15-month tour here as a battalion commander. The income gap means either Afghans are reluctant to join the police or they do join and are forced into petty corruption to make ends meet, he said.
Here in southern Afghanistan, the few police stationed at remote outposts have become easy targets for the Taliban. Absenteeism, understandably, is high.
At one village outside Kandahar, where the Taliban have a strong presence, the police consisted of a single man with a rifle. No uniform, no radio, no backup.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that efforts to improve the police were set back after 2003 as trainers and resources were diverted to Iraq. That, in turn, has delayed the time when U.S. forces in Afghanistan can be drawn down.
The diversion of the Marine battalion to Afghanistan suggests that even with the fragile security in Iraq, the Bush administration sees the accelerated training of police in Afghanistan as critical.
Senior U.S. officers disagree on how long it will take to recruit, train and equip a solid professional police force in Afghanistan. But they agree it will take years.
In an interview last week, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the top coalition commander, said current force levels might be reduced after 2011 as the Afghan army and police are able to take over.
But U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, who directs training of the Afghan army and police, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing last week that it will take until 2013 to complete the police training program, at the current rate. He said this will require "a fundamental change in culture" within Afghanistan's police force.
McNeill also said the most successful U.S. forces spend 15 months here, because it takes that long to exploit relationships and trust that is built slowly with local Afghans. But Hall's battalion is assigned to Afghanistan for only seven months.
Nevertheless, based on his experiences in Iraq, Hall outlined ambitious plans for the Marines to provide security, police training and development projects as simple as road paving.
He said most police training teams sent here by other countries have been too small to provide security as well as training and thus have not been effective. He intends to deploy units of about 60 Marines to each training location to provide a security screen for trainees.
"In some areas, Afghans are afraid to join the police because their families will be threatened," said Hall. He believes the Marines' presence will solve that problem. "They won't be afraid when we get there," he said.
Hall is a former enlisted Marine who said he reads the Quran "so I can truly understand these people."
While serving in the Iraqi city of Najaf, he said, he spent a lot of time walking the streets talking to ordinary Iraqis, learning lessons he intends to apply in Afghanistan.
"The average individual out there doesn't have a real good understanding of what government is and can do," he said.
By producing an effective and responsible police force and helping local government with development projects such as road paving, "we will show them what the rule of law is and what the government can do," he said.
The Marines have three law enforcement specialists with them to provide specialized training, and they will be joined by law enforcement consultants from DynCorps, a defense services contractor.
"I am very confident in the training and security piece," Hall said. "The one thing I can't predict is how they will react when we depart," he said, referring to the Afghan police. "They may not know how good they are."