Policing Afghanistan: Civilian Police Reform and the Resurgence of the Taliban

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of War and Society: Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Steven Carlton-Ford & Morten G. Ender, pp. 114-124. London: Routledge. Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2011. "Policing Afghanistan: Civilian Police Reform and the Resurgence of the Taliban." Pp. 114-124 in The Routledge Handbook of War and Society: Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Steven Carlton-Ford & Morten G. Ender. London: Routledge.


Modern police institutions have historically developed from government agencies involved with the suppression of political dissent (against the state) towards the development of independent expert institutions involved with the control of crime (in society) (Deflem 2002, 2009). This historical development towards an increasing bureaucratic autonomy of policing also has an important comparative dimension, for police institutions only reach a high degree of autonomy when a society is relatively peaceful and the polity is democratized. In autocratic regimes, conversely, police power will remain very closely tied to governments’ quest to maintain power and secure order. This typically occurs through very violent means and in close conjunction with military forces that are not as sharply differentiated from police as is the case in democratic societies. As police institutions under autocratic polities tend to be very closely associated with the military, civilian police duties (of crime control) are typically subsumed under a much broader security regime (of order). In democratic regimes, by contrast, police and military are not closely intertwined except in exceptional circumstances, such as a period of warfare.

These theoretical insights are used to analyze the evolving police condition in Afghanistan since the invasion of the country in 2001. Accompanying the analysis of policing in contemporary Iraq (Deflem and Sutphin 2006; reprinted in this volume), it will be shown that the establishment of civilian police forces in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, is not only difficult and slow, but has also been hampered by violent attacks against the police by the Taliban’s deliberate efforts to impede democratization.

From 1996 until the invasion of 2001, Afghanistan was politically controlled by the autocratic Taliban. Based on the theory of policing that argues for the gradual development of professional police systems (Deflem 2002), it can be postulated that the police function under the Taliban was intimately tied to the political objectives of the state. As a result, civilian police functions will not have been well-developed compared to those of the military, secret intelligence, and security agencies. However, since the invasion of Afghanistan and the introduction of a democratic system of government, these conditions will have led to a democratization of the country’s polity and to a development of accompanying civilian police systems. This process of police professionalization, however, has been substantially hindered by Taliban fighters, who seek to disrupt Afghanistan’s path to democracy. The Taliban thereby uses violent strategies against the newly instituted police forces in order to destabilize Afghan society.

Like the insurgent activities that have plagued the development of policing in Iraq (Deflem and Sutphin 2006), the militant activities of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, I argue, are purposely aimed at hindering the development of the newly established Afghan police institutions. Thus, the military intervention in Afghanistan has not only responded to the terrorism of 9/11, it has also brought about an entirely new set of conditions of terrorist violence. Given the connections between the development of civilian police and the democratization of society, I argue, the terrorist activities of Taliban forces in Afghanistan are aimed at the police institutions that are being established because a regularly functioning police would represent an important and highly visible indicator of the pacification and normalization of society. Civilian police forces are ironically a preferred target of terrorist activities, precisely at times when these institutions are needed, even more urgently than under peacetime conditions, to fight terrorist activities. This analysis is based on a variety of government and agency reports and international news sources.

Policing Autocracy: Afghanistan under Taliban Rule

Given the variable connections between police and politics, it is useful to situate the development of the organization and function of policing in Afghanistan within the country’s political evolution (Ewans 2002; Rogers 2004; Runion 2007). Although Afghan civilization dates back several thousands of years, a modern state of Afghanistan was not founded until the middle of the 18th century, when Persian rulers took control of a region that now covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of Iran and India. In the early 19th century, the United Kingdom extended its colonial empire to the Afghan region, until Amanullah Khan was installed as Shah in 1919.

Afghanistan’s monarchial dynasty was very stable, with Mohammed Zahir Shah ruling from 1933 until 1973, when he was ousted by a relative, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who became the first President of a newly formed Republic of Afghanistan. In 1978, Daoud Khan was killed following an uprising led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, at which time the country was officially renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Backed by the Soviet Union, the new regime was secular and introduced various modernization reforms, leading to opposition from religious conservatives and other factions, including the Islamic warriors of the so-called Mujahideen.

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Faced with international opposition and an increasingly better organized Mujahideen, which could also count on the backing from the United States government, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. During the 1990s, secular and Islamic forces in Afghanistan continued fighting for control of the country. In 1996, the Islamic political forces of the Taliban seized the city of Kabul and gradually took control over almost all of Afghanistan.

During the Taliban era, many police functions were subsumed under broader military powers and formulated in terms of principles derived from Islam (Abdullah 1998; Lamb 2006; Maier 2001; Mohammad and Conway 2003; PBS 2006). Besides a constant involvement in battling rivaling militias, the Taliban also maintained an elaborate internal enforcement regime to impose its strict version of Islamic law (sharia). Partly based on a similar police force in Saudi Arabia, this ‘religious police’ was formally overseen by a Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Amro bil mahroof) and was expected to enforce various Taliban edicts oriented at making Afghan society Islamic in all respects. Such edicts were promulgated to ban all non-religious music, all books not published in Afghanistan, television sets, videocassettes and recorders, satellite dishes, and movies, all of which were judged to be offensive to Islam and, consequently, subject to police action. Behavior forbidden under Taliban law included laughing in public, dancing, keeping pigeons, and smoking. Neckties, fashion catalogues, musical instruments, computer discs, and flying kites were also banned, and police were ordered to seize all such items. Afghan women were particularly targeted by Taliban laws, which forbad women to work or go to school, to wear white shoes or heels that clicked or clothing other than the all-covering burqa, to use lipstick, or to walk outdoors unaccompanied by a close male relative. In August 2001, a Taliban edict banned all organizations in Afghanistan, except the Taliban militia headquarters in Kandahar, from using the internet (Abdullah 1998; Lamb 2006; Maier 2001).

The Taliban police would beat or imprison anyone who broke the rules of sharia law. Men could be beaten by the religious police for having beards shorter than the length of a fist. Taliban policemen would sometimes stop vehicles on the street and search for music or video tapes, telling people to spend more time praying and going to the mosque. Barbers were arrested for giving men haircuts, known as the ‘Titanic,’ that mimicked the style of actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie about the famous ship. Thieves could have their arms or legs amputated, anyone caught drinking liquor could get whippings, adulterers could be stoned to death, and women were generally not granted any independent rights (Abdullah 1998; Lamb 2006; Maier 2001).

Post-Invasion Police Reform

As has been the case since Iraq was invaded (Deflem and Sutphin 2006), the invasion of Afghanistan brought about many immediate and long-term changes. Although the military interventions were motivated differently in terms of their purported connections to the terrorist attacks of September 11, they each envisioned a political regime change and the installation of a new, democratically elected government. The democratization of primary social institutions, including Afghan police and security forces, would have to be part of this process.

Because the al-Qaeda movement was linked to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where terrorist training camps were organized and Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding, the United States government, in direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 with the support of coalition forces of some 50 countries. After the invasion, local Afghan warlords sided with coalition forces in fighting the Taliban and joined the so-called Northern Alliance, a collection of anti-Taliban Afghan political and religious groups. Once the Taliban forces had been largely defeated, the Alliance helped install an Afghan Transitional Administration in 2002. This paved the way for a new permanent government allowing the 2004 Presidential elections, when Hamid Karzai became President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Congressional elections were held in September 2005 to establish a National Assembly.

In April 2002, an international conference on Afghanistan was held in Geneva to formulate a plan for Afghan security in the post-Taliban era (Combined Security Transition Command 2008; Del Vecchio 2008; Library of Congress 2006; Murray 2007; Powell 2005; Sedra 2003; U.S. Department of State 2006; Wardick 2004; Wilder 2007). The initial goal was to install a new Afghan national police that would consist of some 44,300 uniformed police, 12,000 border police, 3,400 highway police, and 2,300 counternarcotics police. In 2003, a new Afghan National Police (ANP) was established along with an Afghan National Army. The newly formed national police resembles a gendarmerie in having a military character, but it is responsible for regular law enforcement duties, including criminal investigations, drugs enforcement, and border security. The ANP is supervised by the Afghan Ministry of Interior, which developed a document, the Tashkil, that specifies the structure and functions of the new police. By 2009, the number of police officially part of the ANP had risen to about 79,000. Yet no accurate information is available of the number of officers actually serving, as police commanders are known to accept salaries of nonexistent ‘ghost officers’ (Saunders 2008).

The Afghan National Police consists of several specialized branches. The Uniformed Police (at 34,000 the largest unit in the ANP) is responsible for general law enforcement, public safety, and internal security. A Civil Order Police is responsible for security involving civil disturbances in large urban areas. Additionally, specialized law enforcement functions are maintained by the Border Police, the Counter Narcotics Police, the Criminal Investigation Division Police, as well as a Counter Terrorism Police.

On the basis of the 2002 Geneva conference, German authorities in 2003 took on the lead role in Afghan police reform through the German Police Project Office which aimed to help the Afghan government create a national police that is both effective and respectful of the rule of law (Ausw√§rtiges Amt n.d.). Since June of 2007, the German initiative has been expanded into a European effort through the European Union Police Mission to Afghanistan, called ‘EUPOL Afghanistan’ (Council of the European Union n.d.). Largely made up of German as well as other foreign police, EUPOL Afghanistan provides training, advice, and equipment to the Afghan National Police. Consisting of some 200 officers, EUPOL Afghanistan decided, in May 2008, to bring the size of the mission to a total of 400 personnel on the basis of a budget of more than 35 million Euros (nearly 52 million U.S. dollars).

Besides Germany and the European Union, other coalition forces, especially Canada and the United States, have also assisted in the reorganization of the Afghan police. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2005 to monitor and train the Afghan National Police (RCMP n.d.). The United States policing efforts in Afghanistan are not primarily involved with Afghan police reform but at poppy crops eradication, especially by intervention of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (and the Drug Enforcement Administration) (see Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs n.d.; Risen 2007).

Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has assisted the Afghan National Police, using U.S. marines and other military units to train police recruits (Rohde 2007b). As in Iraq, U.S. efforts to train Afghan police are also handled by DynCorp. By June 2006, the private company had 245 police trainers in Afghanistan. Police training is conducted at the Afghan National Police Academy (Central Training Center) in the capital city of Kabul as well as in several regional training centers across the country. By 2006, more than 60,000 Afghan police officers had received training. Because the government of Afghanistan does not have the necessary funds, the reorganization of the country’s police is funded by members of the international community.

Although some former Afghan militia members have been recruited into the army and the national police, several thousands of militia organizations have continued to exist under the command of local warlords. Additional problems exist because the Afghan criminal justice system has developed very slowly and there are not enough attorneys, judges, and other necessary personnel to carry out law enforcement activities. Also, some areas of the country remain unprotected by army or police and are under the control of drugs traffickers and local militia groups.

By 2009, there were still plans to increase the size of Afghanistan’s national police. Yet, because Afghan police forces have not been able to provide adequate security with respect to civil order, drugs enforcement, and border security, Afghan National Army troops have been deployed in areas that are lacking in law enforcement. As in Iraq, police in Afghanistan have also been accused of being ineffective as well as unprofessional, using torture to extort confessions and being involved in corruption (Berglund 2008). As a result, the need for international assistance in Afghan police training remained high as late as the Fall of 2008 (Canwest News Service 2008; Deutsche Welle 2008).

Target: Afghan Police

Again paralleling the development in Iraq (Deflem and Sutphin 2006), the invasion of Afghanistan has brought about continued problems of violence and civil unrest despite the efforts that have been made to introduce democratic rule and establish new social institutions. Democratic rule has been formally instituted in Afghanistan, but ongoing outbursts of violence by Taliban forces have prevented a normalization of Afghan society. As in Iraq, the newly formed Afghan civilian police forces have been especially targeted by the renewed violent unrest.

Despite the fact that a democratic government has been installed in Afghanistan, Taliban forces have been able to regain control over several areas in the country (and in neighboring Pakistan). As early as 2005, coalition forces had to mount a new offensive against Taliban positions. A year later, Taliban resistance continued to increase, especially by means of attacks involving improvised explosives and suicide bombings. As a result, Afghan society has been destabilized by what has been described, since as early as the summer of 2006, as a full-fledged Taliban resurgence (de Borchgrave 2006). The Afghan National Police, moreover, has been judged to be ineffective in dealing with the upsurge in Taliban violence, as the police have remained understaffed, undertrained, and underequipped (Chivers 2008; CTV 2008). By July 2008, the violence perpetrated by Taliban forces had reached such proportions that the United States government decided to extend the tour of duty of some its troops, and asked other NATO nations involved to increase their respective troop levels (Dillow 2008). In February 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that an additional 17,000 troops would be deployed to Afghanistan (Alberts 2009).

There is no systematic information available on the fatalities of the Taliban resurgence that is comparable to that provided by the Iraq Body Count website on the situation in Iraq (Deflem and Sutphin 2006). In more ways than one, the military intervention in Afghanistan is a ‘forgotten war.’ However, based on information provided in published media reports, there are clear indications that the Taliban resurgence has increased since at least 2005 and that its violent tactics have been specifically and increasingly aimed at Afghanistan’s new civilian police forces (Rohde 2007a; Motlagh 2007). Although Afghan police were already targeted by Taliban forces soon after the new National Police was installed (McCarthy 2003), attacks against the police particularly increased during the spring of 2007, when Taliban tactics moved from attacking the military troops of the (foreign) coalition forces to hitting the (domestic) police forces. By early September 2007, at least 379 Afghan police were reported to have already been killed in that year, compared to a total of 257 police fatalities for all of 2006. Other sources put the numbers even higher, estimating some 1,200 police killed in 2007 (CNN 2008). Data provided by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry indicate that more than 900 Afghan police officers were killed as a result of Taliban violence in 2007 (Shah and Gall 2008). Other sources put the numbers even higher, with as many as 1,700 Afghan police fatalities in the first four months of 2007 (Chivers 2009).

Throughout 2008 and the first half of 2009, media sources continued to report on Taliban attacks purposely aimed at killing Afghan police officials (e.g., Farmer 2009; Gul 2008; Khan 2009; Shah 2009). By the spring of 2009, U.S. military command estimated that 1,500 Afghan police were killed in 2008 (Garamone 2009). In June of 2008, the first ever killing of a female Afghan police officer was reported (GEO TV 2008). A few months later, the highest ranked female police officer in the city of Kandahar was also murdered in an attack the Taliban claimed as part of the increasing wave of attacks purposely aimed at Afghan women (Burns 2008). A surge of Taliban attacks took place in the weeks and days leading up to the Afghan presidential and provincial council elections that were held on August 20, 2009. Afghan police forces were thereby particularly targeted (Weissenstein 2009).

The total number of fatalities among the Afghan police as a result of Taliban violence appears to be lower than the number of insurgency killings of police in Iraq. In the years 2008 and 2009, when violence against Afghan police was on the rise, similar incidents against Iraqi police were on the decline but were still at levels comparable to that in Afghanistan at the time. Extending from the analysis by Deflem and Sutphin (2006), numbers reported in the Iraq Body Count database show that by February 27, 2009 a total of 9,490 Iraqi police officers had been killed in 3,291 incidents since May 2003 (Deflem 2010). The total number of Iraqi police fatalities rose from 962 in 2004 to 1,454 in 2005, 2,413 in 2006, and 3,107 in 2007. After the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq was increased to 152,000 in March of 2007, the number of police fatalities decreased, but the level of insurgent violence involving police fatalities remained higher than it had been before the summer of 2006. In the 8-month period from November 2005 to June 2006, 1,009 police were killed, while 1,225 police died in the 8-month period from August 2007 to March 2008. In 2008, the total number of police killed was 1,241, considerably less than the year before, but still more than in 2004.

The violent attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq indicate a similar pattern: militants avoid targeting military troops and resort to roadside bombs and suicide attacks directed at police forces. Afghan police officers are additionally vulnerable because many are based in small police stations in regional districts and are attacked at night. More fundamentally, the Taliban attack Afghan’s new system of policing to bring about a destabilization of society. The attacks against the police are not merely tactically motivated to fight anti-Taliban forces. Rather, they broadly target Afghan police institutions throughout the country, irrespective of the role of police in counter-terrorism or other civilian tasks. Taliban forces have also sought to destabilize a democratic Afghanistan by targeting other important social institutions such as schools and mosques.

Police, Democracy, and the Normalization of Society

Soon after U.S. Special Operations and other coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban was quickly ousted and a nascent democratic regime was soon installed. The quick overthrow of the Taliban took place much as the U.S. government and the other coalition powers had hoped for. However, even more than is the case with the insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban forces were able to regroup and regain control, at least in some areas of Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the greatest difficulties in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since a democratic government was put in place have come from the resurgence of ethnic and religious factions, the eruption and intensification of militant violence, and the very slow and incomplete restoration of primary social institutions. A durable peace and normalization of Afghanistan has as of yet not been firmly established.

Continued violence from Taliban militants in Afghanistan (like the violent operations from insurgents in Iraq) have hindered the normalization of social life, including the development of civilian police systems. Societies that have not reached a degree of pacification are unlikely to develop a new civilian police force. As argued elsewhere (Deflem and Sutphin 2006), pacification can thereby not be understood to imply merely an absence of warfare and extreme levels of violence, but should also entail a durable peace that allows for a normalization of social life. Importantly, conditions of peace and the functioning of primary social institutions such as the police can be observed to mutually influence one another. A well-functioning Afghan police system is thus a very important element in the transition to a democratic Afghanistan. Precisely because of the role a civilian police plays in the democratization of Afghan society, the newly established Afghan police forces (much like the Iraqi police in the post-Saddam era) have been among the favored targets of terrorist violence.

Affirming the importance of the police as a primary institution, it can be noted that terrorist attacks against police, often specifically targeted at new recruits, have also taken place in other nations that, for various reasons, have gone through periods of instability. Since the summer and fall of 2008, attacks against police and police stations, claimed to have been organized by a variety of terrorist groups, have been reported in countries as diverse as Yemen, Algeria, China, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and the Russian republic of Ingushetia (Deflem 2010). Although more systematic research would be needed, it is not unthinkable that at least some of these actions have been undertaken because of the successful implementation of similar attacks against police in other nations, thus indicating a spread of terrorist tactics across national borders. In the case of Pakistan, moreover, the attacks against police that have taken place in 2008 and 2009 have been attributed to the same Taliban forces that operate in neighboring Afghanistan (Deflem 2010).

Confirming the analysis of police reform in Iraq (Deflem and Sutphin 2006), the case of the post-invasion Afghan police suggests that a pragmatic perspective is needed which acknowledges that military interventions in autocratic political regimes will inevitably bring about breakdowns of the social order at multiple institutional levels (Perito 2005). Rather than merely assuming and hoping that invading powers will be “greeted as liberators,” as then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed before the invasion of Iraq, a more sobering and realistic estimate about restoration efforts following military interventions is in order (Milbank 2003). Even under the best of circumstances, police reform in post-autocratic regimes should be expected to take several years. The development of a civilian police in post-Taliban Afghanistan (as in post-Ba’athist Iraq) is especially difficult because states with a strongly militaristic and dictatorial past cannot easily separate internal security tasks from national defense functions. As the case of Iraq also shows, a rigid separation of military and police functions and an adaptation to local circumstances are needed to enable the successful creation of a civilian police in post-autocratic regimes (Bayley 2001).

In the current global era, it is unthinkable that the democratization of any society can occur in isolation from the rest of the world. In the case of civilian police reform in Afghanistan (and Iraq), international assistance has therefore proven to be instrumental. However, these international programs have faced inherent difficulties because they depend not only on support from police in the assistance-providing nations, but also have to rely on military units and private companies whose police-reform capabilities are by definition limited. Private security groups, such as DynCorp, can often rely on officers recruited from professional law enforcement agencies, but they lack the accountability that characterizes public police institutions. Military personnel are neither trained nor equipped to deal with matters of law enforcement unless they have been recruited from law enforcement. The assigning of police tasks to the military is also counter-productive and highly ironic in view of the fact that a primary goal of police reform in post-autocratic regimes is precisely to demarcate the civilian police more clearly from the military.


Besides the inherent difficulties in forming a democratic polity in post-war societies, the development of democratic police institutions poses many additional concerns. While some variation exists in how democracies are and can be policed, the police function in a democratic society must at a minimum fulfill the following dual conditions: 1) police agencies must have a position of independence relative to the center of the state and be responsible towards the needs of citizens and accountable to law; and 2) police must abide by standards of law and human rights (Bayley 2001, 2005). In contemporary Afghanistan (as in Iraq), these conditions are very tentatively beginning to emerge, but many problems persist. Most distinctly, civilian police forces are expressly pursued as the preferred targets of violent operations by factions expressly oriented at destabilizing society.

At the time of this writing (August 2009), indications suggest that Afghanistan, even more so than is the case in Iraq, does not (yet) have a stable democratic polity and also that the country cannot (yet) count on a civilian police that can truly lay claim to a legitimate and effective monopoly of force. Yet, inasmuch as the newly instituted and developing police institutions of Afghanistan are no longer the mere political tools of autocratic regimes, Afghan society is undergoing a slow and difficult process of normalization and democratization. It is for this reason precisely that terrorist attacks against the civilian police are meant to thwart the pacification of society. Yet, to the extent that Afghan police forces succeed in attaining a position of bureaucratic independence as professional law enforcement institutions, they will remain among the preferred targets of violent attacks from Taliban militants.

Study Questions

1. In the period before the invasion of 2001, Afghanistan was under control of the Taliban. Describe the central characteristics of the Taliban political system and how it differed from a democratic system of government.
2. During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, police activities were closely aligned with military functions and justified on the basis of Islamic law. Summarize the main functions of policing during the period when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
3. Police activities in a democratic society are very different from police activities in an autocratic regime. Describe the most important changes that have taken place in the policing of Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001.
4. The newly formed civilian police in Afghanistan faces great challenges in establishing itself as a democratic institution. Discuss some of the problems the Afghan police forces have had to deal with, especially in terms of the resurgence of the Taliban after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
5. In discussions in the media as well as in scholarly work, the role of police in autocratic societies, such as in Afghanistan under the Taliban, is often not sufficiently debated. Formulate an argument of why it is important to study the police in societies with an autocratic past that are undergoing a transition to democracy.

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See other writings on the policing of terrorism.