Thursday, May 13, 2010

Walking the beat with Canadian police in Afghanistan

A Canadian soldier from Camp Nathan Smith talks with Afghan children while patrolling with U.S. military police and Afghan local police in the Kandahar city centre on Tuesday.

When the paramount concern is death by Taliban suicide attack, the little things go unnoticed.

So small wonder that nobody – not the Canadian police, nor the American MPs, nor even the Afghan cops – was aware of the pungent little plant at their feet Tuesday afternoon as they stepped with considerable relief back inside the bomb-pocked walls of the Afghan Provincial Police Headquarters in downtown Kandahar.

Together, they had just completed an extended foot patrol through the heart of the city the Taliban vows will soon be theirs again. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds upon hundreds of Kandaharis – everyday people far more accustomed to soldiers barging through town in hermetically sealed armoured vehicles.

And from the Toronto Star’s vantage, a good three-quarters of Kandahar was happy to meet them face to face, eye to eye. Better this than being run off the road by a convoy of LAVs. There were many smiles, waves and friendly “Salaams.” Bakers handed out flatbread fresh from the oven to the passing patrol. One woman even reached beneath her burqa, wagging a hand of welcome.

It was a sitting-duck scenario and everyone knew it. But however nerve-ratting the job of dismounting and patrolling on foot – one of the Americans on Tuesday called it a “sphincter-tightener” – it also is crucial to the counter-insurgency strategy NATO is rolling out to bring the population to its side.

And crucially, there were newly minted Afghan police in the mix, all graduates of the Canadian-led training program at nearby Camp Nathan Smith, where RCMP, OPP, even Toronto cops still toil in relative obscurity.

Back safely at police HQ – and don’t kid yourself, this much-bombed compound is a routine target of insurgents, most recently a multiple-suicide bomb attack in March – one each of the Canadians, Americans and Afghans was selected to line up for a valedictory photo.

Which brings us to the little plant. There at their feet, right inside police headquarters, stood a thriving foot-high marijuana shrub.

Joint patrol, indeed.

Call it a reality check. For several days now, the small gaggle of reporters here at Camp Nathan Smith have been subjected to bit of a dog-and-pony show on the wonders of police training – well-intentioned Canadian police officers leading us from the classroom to the firing range, assessing with carefully scripted enthusiasm the six-week course that currently is transforming some 50 young and job-hungry Afghan men into fully fledged policemen.

And truth be told, things look better than they did some two years ago, when Kandaharis complained the then payless and endemically corrupt police were robbing them blind. For starters and most importantly, pay reform is starting to work for the cops of Kandahar City (if not the outlying districts) – the rank and file now receive regular monthly stipends of 12,000 to 15,000 Afghanis ($260 to $325), more than enough to live on without shaking down the citizenry for their daily bread.

What is especially striking is the extent to which the Canadian police mentors have extended their own footprint – volunteers from cop-shops across Canada now are venturing out regularly to all 12 Kandahar police substations to monitor the progress of their newly minted trainees. In so doing, they are taking chances far beyond what the rest of the NATO civilian police mentors do.

A case in point: Toronto Police Service Const. Amir Butt (one of 11 Toronto police in the program) two days ago ventured out to dangerous District 9, a transient-filled patch of the city, when word came that a batch of his graduates had uncovered an IED.

“I just needed to make sure they were following through. Their job is to create a ring of security so local Afghan civilians don’t stumble onto the bomb and get killed. But sometimes they just call and tell us its there and then they run away,” Butt told the Star.

“But they got it right this time. And the only way we can be sure is to go out there and see for ourselves.”

For the full article click here for the Canadian Star online

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