Mission accomplished? Weak police as the allies retreat from Afghanistan

February 26, 2013

By Alex Glynn

Reporter Ben Anderson joined a panel at the Frontline Club on Monday 25 February to discuss his new 30-minute documentary for BBC’s Panorama on the allied troops’ legacy in Afghanistan and the condition of the Afghan police.

Will Pike, a former British Army Major in Afghanistan, and Dawood Azami, former BBC World Service Bureau Chief in Kabul, joined Anderson to answer questions form the audience. Nick Fielding, former Sunday Times and Independent journalist and author of the blog Circling the Lion’s Den moderated the discussion.

Panorama Preview Screening
Ben Anderson tells panel and audience members about his documentary
Photography: Alex Glynn

Anderson travelled to the southern province of Sangin to film the documentary Mission Accomplished? The Secrets of Helmand – it is an area that is now mainly controlled by the Afghan police. He follows US marines as they prepare to hand back control to a police force that is severely underprepared, ill equipped and rife with corruption.

“The documentary was depressing to make,” said Anderson. “I think the goals the western nations set weren’t achievable. After so much loss of life – British, American, Afghan – to hand back power to those guys . . .” 

“One of the police we filmed was shot a few weeks after I left and they found a bag of heroin in his pocket,” he added, referring to the scenes in the documentary where some police members seemed drugged up.

But Pike defended the allies’ retreat, explaining:

“The automatic response of governments is to give the DOD or MOD a problem to sort out. But Afghanistan is not a military problem, it’s a socio-economic problem. So why do we ask the military to leave and expect it to be a success?”

One reoccurring discussion point was whether or not the situation in Sangin was representative of Afghanistan as a whole. Anderson said: “I’ve travelled all over and it seems these problems are common.”

Azami added that although Sangin is a particularly weak area, it is the same picture in many towns.

“The problem is the police are there for basic law and enforcement, they’re not supposed to be engaged in fighting the Taliban – it’s not their job,” he said.

Anderson added the police hadn’t prosecuted one case in two years. Azami continued later on:

“It takes a lot of time, they are new institutions, established in a hurry without vetting them properly. It will take a lot of time for that culture to be established.”

Anderson said a major concern is how the Afghan police will cope once the allies have left all together:

“The main problem is equipment. I think it’s scandalous we’re leaving them with rusty AK-47s, unarmoured jeeps and little else. If we can’t put down the Taliban with all the equipment we have, what on earth chance do they have?”

Pike added:

“The success will depend on whether Afghan local officials stand up, be counted and start to apply some rules providing basic law an order.”

Azami said the three-point plan of the Afghan government was to talk to the Taliban, improve governance, and improve the quality of armed security forces.

“The best hope they have is to reach some political settlement with the Taliban,” he added.

Panorama: Mission Accomplished? The Secrets of Helmand, was shown on BBC1 and can be watched again on BBC iPlayer.

You can watch the full debate here: