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Afghan Police Protect Officials, Not Public, In Frontline Province

Afghan policemen march during a graduation ceremony in Helmand on February 6.
Afghan policemen march during a graduation ceremony in Helmand on February 6.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Afghan police are needed to protect people and government institutions in remote districts across Afghanistan’s largest province, Helmand.

Instead, police officers and soldiers from the restive districts in the southern province are being deployed to protect senior officials and lawmakers in the regional capital, Lashkar Gah.

Provincial lawmaker Majid Akhundzada says the situation is affecting the capacity of Afghan police to provide public security.

“A lot of our police are working as servants [of senior officials] instead of performing their real duties,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “This is why our police are always short of people to deploy to the outlying regions after the armed forces reclaim them from insurgents.”

The issue is alarming because resurgent Taliban militants overran large swathes of Helmand after most international troops withdrew in late 2014. Helmand borders Pakistan and is in close proximity of Iran. It produces most of the world’s opium and heroin, which partly bankrolls the Taliban insurgency.

According to government documents obtained by Radio Free Afghanistan more than 450 policemen from some 13 districts in Helmand are currently deployed to protect government dignitaries in Lashkar Gah. For example, 22 policemen from Khanashin district are working in the city while insurgent control the district for more than two years.

Alarmingly, nearly 50 members of a police strike force tasked with conducting operations against the Taliban are stationed in Lashkar Gah. They spend most days driving the city in convoys to guard senior officials.

“A provincial lawmaker is only entitled to two policemen for security but in Helmand they are protected by dozens, who often need two or more [Ford] Ranger trucks to get around,” activist Abdul Haq Zkwakman noted.

Another activist, Nazar Mohammad Rohi, says the concentration of police in Lashkar Gah contributes to a lack of security in other districts.

“We urgently need more policemen to be deployed to outlying districts,” he said. “They should not be used as personal guards of senior officials.”

Two years ago, insurgents overran most of Helmand’s districts and even periodically threatened and besieged Lashkar Gah. Since then, the insurgents have been pushed back by a series of air strikes, commando raids, and ground offensives, but more manpower is required to protect the reclaimed territories.

The issue is compounded by the high casualty and attrition rates among the Afghan police, which are plagued by corruption and poor discipline.

Helmand provincial police chief Abdul Ghaffar Safi says they are trying to address the issue.

“I admit this is an organizational problem. We used to have a rescue force, which has unfortunately been eliminated,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We are now trying to address this issue with all relevant government departments.”

Safi, however, rejected claims that policemen are deployed to protect officials. He said they are primarily tasked with protecting key government facilities such as the office of the provincial governor.

For remote Helmand districts, the deployment of additional policemen can sometimes decide whether they remain under government control or are overrun by insurgents.

Radio Free Afghanistan has learned that some 94 policemen and officers from the restive district of Kajaki are currently serving in Lashkar Gah.

The district is home to one of Afghanistan’s biggest hydroelectric dams and serves as a lifeline for Helmand’s agriculture.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.