Police test Afghanistan's fragile ethnic balance

By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

But in Marjah, the criticism was loud and clear.

In a tiny general store in Marjah, Mullah Daoud scoffed when he recalled the 2010 operation, saying they were told prosperity would follow. He said corrupt government officials instead set up shop, along with the local police.

"ANCOP does not bother us. The local police are the problem," said Daoud, an elderly man with a gray beard who was lying on a bright red cushion.

A half-dozen other men — some sitting nearby on the floor, some peering through the curtained door — then launched into a chorus of complaints about the police. One man said the police seized his motorcycle, another said he was forced to pay $20 to get his cotton crop past a checkpoint.

Among the Afghan security forces, the 16,500-strong ANCOP stands out as an exception. They are better educated than the average national policeman or soldier, most of whom can neither read nor write. An ANCOP recruit needs a Grade 9 education, and some among Rahman's battalion are college graduates. They study human rights and behavioral science.

In Helmand, Rahman's men run patrols between Lashkar Gah and Marjah along dirt roads and through mud villages, where they create small outposts and swarm areas where Taliban fighters have been sighted. Occasionally they team up with the Afghan Army and National Police for assaults on Taliban hideouts. They also set up road blocks, stop vehicles and search the occupants — though not women.

Daoud said ANCOP conducts patrols but does not search homes. "They are good. We don't mind them," he said.

He and others in Marjah say the biggest problems with law enforcement in the area are bad training, poor discipline and corruption — not ethnicity.

Some analysts agree that Afghanistan's ethnic divisions have been oversimplified, and even misunderstood.

"There is a tendency among observers to overestimate the animosity between the north and the south, or rather to see it something fixed and static. As if people hate each other just because they are from different areas. It's not like that," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research group based in Afghanistan.

She said animosity arises when one ethnic group forcibly tries to subdue another, not when a group like ANCOP enters an ethnic majority Pashtun area with the intention of working with the population.

"It would probably be quite difficult to rile up people against a contingent that is largely from the north but that behaves well, you would need some pretty strong propaganda and even then it would probably be an uphill struggle," she said. "Many people in the south, and all over the country, are really on the lookout for representatives of the government that behave well. They still hold out the hope that this can supersede factionalism and other dividing lines."

Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon

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