The US Military is Not, and Can Never Be, Afghanistan’s Police

Resolute Support forces arrive at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, near the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.

AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

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Resolute Support forces arrive at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, near the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.

If we were 'almost a police force' in Afghanistan, we already would have won.

In 1829, the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, established “Peel’s Principles” to describe the role of police at large. Almost 200 years later, policing has changed considerably, but the basic premise of preventing crime, earning public support, and respecting community principles has not.

Our military has worked hard to set the conditions for a departure from Afghanistan, but we have not been policing.  Our military activities in Afghanistan include police assistance as part of our larger mission set, but if the hardest activities left to accomplish were merely that, then it would mean the need for military force would have subsided already, thanks to good governance, and flourishing public support across Afghan communities. It would mean we would have already won.

Peel’s first principle argues that police are “an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force.” While in today’s world it is perhaps easy to call everything short of war “policing,” it is not accurate to do so. What the United States currently provides in Afghanistan is security, backed by force, and informed by American policy. To call military action in Afghanistan “policing” diminishes the difficulty of both endeavors and enables a false narrative that muddies hard policy decisions.

I was a military police officer in Afghanistan tasked with helping to build Afghan police forces. We knew going in that police are an integral part of the rule of law, and policing can only occur as part of a larger system of governance, one that Afghanistan has yet to prove it can provide to its citizens. Over the years, considerable international assets have been invested in developing “rule of law” structures and beliefs in Afghanistan. The United States and its partners — Germany and Italy in particular — believed those systems, once established, would stabilize the country and allow for coalition military forces to depart.  It was likened to building a three-legged stool of: credible law enforcement, judiciary, and corrections apparatuses. From the very beginning of my Army police service in Afghanistan, my fellow law enforcement and legal professionals knew that the only way this system would ultimately succeed would be if it gained legitimacy with the Afghan people. Afghans would have to execute and deliver these services.

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Unfortunately, it has not happened. Afghanistan still requires military forces to suppress crime and disorder, which is no surprise given that the government cannot control vast swaths of its own territory, provide security for its citizens, or deliver services across the country. If it could, then maybe it could also start policing.

Here’s how policing is different from soldiering. In the United States we believe police should be uniquely beholden to their communities and accountable to the public law. Witness the tension in communities around America where this balance between service and power has been lost. In Afghanistan, we are foreigners who are not accountable to the communities we secure. If communities across Afghanistan had the ability to fill that void and exercise this capacity for good, it would mean many other governance successes already had occurred, and would lead to a speedy exit for U.S. military forces. But Afghanistan’s police are not at the level of competence and control needed. So, Afghanistan’s military remains the stabilizing influence.

Afghanistan also simply does not have the legitimate systems and professionals in place which would allow a modern police force to be a viable local alternative to the military, and perhaps it never will. The aftermath of war demands a return from chaos to order and police officers often play a role in establishing that order. Done right, under a system that enables rule of law, police can be a tremendous force for good. Done wrong, police can be the arms of a government that serve to oppress, not support, the public will. This is not unique to Afghanistan, unfortunately. Many nations have police forces that do not uphold Peel’s Principles. Afghanistan is a complex tapestry of traditions and geography, fraught with economic and security instability. This will necessarily shape the attributes of the police force. What kind of police will serve Afghanistan still remains to be seen, but only Afghans can make that choice.

Policing is a deeply human endeavor that requires faith both in the fairness of one’s fellow citizens and their government. It is both intensely personal and frighteningly ubiquitous. Nations which have had a decent rule of law for generations still struggle to deliver these services in fair and consistent manner. Policing requires communities whose citizens believe they have a better shot by working together than by tearing one another apart. To presume this environment exists in Afghanistan is to misjudge the current level of stability. To believe our military is capable of providing this role is to misunderstand policing.

I first deployed to Afghanistan 18 years ago and returned 8 years later to help build their still-fledgling police force. Ten years on, we are still deciding what the right role for our nation is regarding Afghanistan, to include appropriate military tasks. While I believe creating modern police capability under the rule of law in Afghanistan is a noble and worthy goal, we should remember that our military is not, and can never be, their police. 

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