By CJ Chivers
Three months after arriving in the most dangerous area of Afghanistan's Helmand Province, a contingent of specialized Afghan police officers has logged a mediocre performance while being almost wholly dependent on American supervision and support, Westerners who work with the officers said.
The conduct of Marja's interim police, from a unit American officials describe as the Interior Ministry's most promising force, has been undercut by drug use, petty corruption and, at times, a lack of commitment in the face of the ordinary hardships and duties of uniformed life.
When the force first arrived in late winter, entire units refused to stand guard or clean their living areas, several Marines said, and in northern Marja, police shifts often still abandon checkpoints during the sweltering midday heat, disappearing for lunch breaks lasting hours. Some officers have deserted the force.
The police also seem unschooled in rules of engagement, which risks putting their behavior at cross-purposes with Western units trying to earn civilian support. Police officials themselves say they have inadequate equipment and face a complex, dangerous mission.
This early assessment, of a high-profile unit on a much publicized mission, underlined anew the difficulties in creating Afghan forces that can operate independently and be entrusted with the nation's security - an essential step toward drawing down Western forces after nine years of war.
It also raises questions about any timetable for Afghan self-sufficiency. American officials and contractors say it will take much longer for the units to be nurtured to self-reliance and a higher level of skill. For now, the police in Marja perform limited duties. American units create the space in which they operate, and provide their logistical, medical and military support.
"They are not hopeless," said Daniel M. Aguirre, a retired police officer from Amarillo, Tex., who works with the police. "But they are at the first or second rung on the ladder."
Marja's police officers, members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, or Ancop, are from a cadre of roughly 5,000 officers who have been more thoroughly screened and trained than the rank-and-file in the 104,000-officer national police force.
The cadre, billed as superior or even elite, was created after years of Western exasperation with the Afghan police. The Pentagon hoped to develop a core of better officers who could be assigned to high-priority duties.
Marines and American law enforcement contractors said the Civil Order Police had unquestionably performed better than the regular police units assigned several years ago to Marja, where residents rebelled against the former officers' criminality as the region slipped from government control.
A large American offensive in February returned a government presence to the region, although fighting remains frequent. American officers said that against this background, the fact that the police established a place in Marja's public fabric - operating posts and checkpoints near their bases - marked a degree of success.
"They have not been rejected by the people, which was a fear of mine as we started out," said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands Western ground forces here. "And we have gotten some effective work out of them. I think these two things speak positively."
Unlike many police units, which have local duties, Civil Order Police battalions can be deployed anywhere in the nation. This gives the Interior Ministry the flexibility to mass police units where they are needed.
The units also have higher recruiting standards and more extensive entry-level instruction than regular Afghan police formations. To be accepted, applicants must be literate. After completing basic training, they attend an eight-week course.
In return, members of the units start their careers as sergeants, and are paid roughly $260 a month instead of the $165 paid to a new patrolman in a regular police unit. They typically also receive a $75 monthly bonus as hazardous-duty pay.
More than 300 of the unit's sergeants were assigned here after the Marines fought their way in and brought the Afghan government behind them. American commanders hoped they would augment security and serve as ambassadors to a population suspicious of the government.
The experiment began poorly. "They had a negligent discharge within about 30 minutes of getting to us," said Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Wright, whose platoon worked alongside a Civil Order Police unit. He was describing a police sergeant who accidentally fired his weapon.
Matters grew worse. "They refused to work at night, refused to send out patrols and refused to stand post more than three hours," he said. "We tried to establish routines, but every routine failed every time."
Friction between the Marines and the police built until the sides came to what the staff sergeant called a standoff, with a platoon of Marines at one end of an outpost facing a platoon of Afghan officers at the other, and Marine and police supervisors meeting in the center to negotiate.
One problem had to do with the habits and attitudes of a police clique, the Marines said. Many of these police sergeants were smoking hashish.
To clean up the unit, the Marines conducted urinalysis tests. Those who tested positive were reassigned. Once these sergeants were gone, the Marines said, and after Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the American infantry unit in northern Marja, held training classes, the remaining sergeants performed better.
They still required intensive attention, the Marines said. Sometimes they set up unofficial checkpoints and shook down motorists, taking cash or cellphones. "And at official checkpoints they were charging people for head-of-the-line privileges," another American who works beside the police said.
In interviews, Civil Order Police sergeants said that discipline problems were in the past, and that their unit worked well under the circumstances. They complained that they were underequipped and needed more ammunition.
"Right now we have three magazines each, and we need six," said Sgt. Hamidullah, from Faryab Province. "We don't have enough rounds."
The police also said that establishing connections with residents had been difficult. Part of their problem, they said, was that many sergeants are Tajik, and do not speak Pashto, southern Afghanistan's dominant language.
"Nobody can find a lot of information about the Taliban," said Sgt. Akhmad Fahim from Mazar-i-Sharif.
Mr. Aguirre, the retired police officer, said it was too soon to say how the police forces in Marja might fare. He urged patience - a message that has become a common theme - and said more time and resources were needed to make final judgments.
"We've led them by the hand to this point, and they are right on the fence," he said. "The potential is there. But it depends on us."