American commanders made the right decision to suspend the training of local Afghan police after a rising spate of insider attacks against coalition forces. Afghan trainees have killed 45 international service members this year — mostly Americans — and it was only sensible to take a break and reassess the cause of this breakdown in security. The two sides need to work quickly to re-establish a level of trust before the situation undermines an orderly allied withdrawal by 2014.
The decision, announced over the weekend by the head of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, is an appropriate response to the rising number of attacks on the American-led training operation. Soldiers in the field cannot do their jobs if they continually fear for their safety among the very domestic security forces they are arming and training. The move will protect service members and prevent a further eroding of the working relationship between the coalition and village elders in the far-flung, rural areas who are on the front lines in the fight against Taliban insurgents.
The move affects only about 1,000 local police trainees, a small fraction of the 350,000-strong Afghan security services. But this corps, which operates more like a militia than a regular police force, is the leading edge of the Western security effort in the most remote areas. It plays an outsized role in establishing security, monitoring the flow of militants and acting as the point guard for allied interests in the lawless areas. The forces have been accused of bullying the locals and of committing human rights abuses, and the Afghan central government has been incapable or unwilling to bring the officers in line.
American trainers will employ a new vetting process to weed out insurgents infiltrating the security forces and keep a closer watch on police officers for signs they are aligning with militant groups. The deputy commander of the international force said the pause in training local police was the first step in a larger effort to rescreen the entire Afghan army and national police.
Forcing the militia to operate more professionally is essential if NATO hopes to leave in orderly fashion and on time, and if the Afghan central government is to have a chance to win the hearts and minds of its people. The United States was right to send a message to Afghanistan that the West's patience is wearing thin and that the day of taking responsibility for its own security is just around the corner. The training program is essential and suspending it is a setback. But the United Nations has to protect its own personnel, and the soldiers doing the training cannot risk being killed by their trainees at any given moment.