WASHINGTON — A misalignment of U.S. advisers to train Afghan police and security forces has resulted in poor training and a police force more closely resembling a paramilitary organization, according to John Sopko, the inspector general for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

“The U.S. lacks a deployable police development capability,” Sopko told a crowd at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington.

Over 100,000 police have been trained using “U.S. military aviators, infantry officers and civilian contractors,” he added. And at the ministerial level “mostly untrained U.S. military officers and coalition officers are conducting that mission.”

“As one U.S. officer told us, he watched TV shows like ‘Cops’ and ‘NCIS’ to learn what to teach Afghan police recruits,” Sopko said.

The misalignment of trainers and resources has resulted in an overly militarized police force, that focuses less on policing.

The police are being sent out to hold areas, and “all they are is a paramilitary force,” Sopko said.

Sopko’s remarks at CSIS were part of a discussion on SIGAR’s most recently published report about lessons learned on reconstructing Afghan security forces.

Overall, the U.S. government was ill prepared for the size and scope of security assistance needed for Afghanistan, Sopko said.

The recent SIGAR report is not intended to “dwell on failure but learned lessons,” Sopko said.

Afghan security forces “are vital to everything we hope to achieve in Afghanistan,” he added.

Nearly $70 billon has been spent on Afghan security assistance since 2002, according to Sopko.

However, the U.S. government is not well organized to conduct security assistance missions, and funds, advisers and training are misappropriated and mismatched, he explained.

In one example, Afghan forces received PowerPoint presentations on NATO operations in the Balkans, according to Sopko. The NATO mission in the Balkans has little to no comparison with the situation in Afghanistan. These “cut-and-paste activities” are a problem, he said.  

The solution requires a truly whole-of-government approach, according to Sopko. For example, on a recent trip to Kandahar, U.S. military officers complained they had not seen or met anyone from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Sopko said, recounting a recent story.

The lack of qualified State Department officials in the field hinders the ability of the U.S. to conduct meetings with local government officials and forces the U.S. military to saddle much of the responsibility on Afghanistan.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul is severely understaffed and restrictions on travel in country by U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan are a severe impediment to the mission in Afghanistan, Sopko explained.

Sopko also stressed arbitrary deadlines based on political constraints were a major setback for Afghan forces. The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces and drying up of U.S. airpower was a mistake as the U.S. underestimated the strength and resiliency of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

With the removal of timelines and an Afghan government under the leadership of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has shown more willingness to work with the U.S., Sopko says he is “cautiously optimistic,” that the mission in Afghanistan can succeed.

Sopko also highlighted the need for the U.S. government to provide clear and strong conditions-based aid in Afghanistan.

Currently, “conditions are so weak you can drive a Mack truck through them,” he said. Sometimes, you “have to be brave enough to say no.”

Making progress

However, there are some success stories in Afghanistan, according to the inspector general, pointing to the nearly 17,000 strong Afghan special forces and commandos and the A-29 Super Tucano program.

U.S. special operations forces have been “very consistent” in training Afghan special operators, according to Sopko. Afghan commandos are generally better educated, literate and better trained.

Part of the reason is because American commandos live and train with their partner forces directly.

As Ghani considers doubling the size of the Afghan special forces, some considerations will need to be taken into account, according to Sopko. “What does this mean for regular forces?” Sopko said, questioning what might happen as Afghan commando forces double.

Pulling out literate Afghans from conventional forces into the commando forces could cause serious problems down the road.

Afghanistan and its security forces have faced many challenges and hurdles but they continue to improve, according to Sopko. There is “still time to make a difference,” he said.

Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.

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