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Law lessons for Afghan police

Foreign governments turn eyes - and training - on police to stem corruption and violence.

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Like most young Afghans, 18-year-old Zabibullah harbors a fierce distrust for his country's rag-tag police force.

"After 23 years of war here, everything is a mess in Afghanistan - especially the police," he says angrily. "Most of them just act like animals."

His attitude can hardly be unexpected in a country where police last month turned their guns on Kabul University students who were protesting squalid dorm conditions. Four students died and dozens were wounded.

What's surprising is that Zabibullah, who uses just one name, hopes one day to join the police ranks himself. He's one of 1,400 young cadets currently enrolled in the Kabul Police Academy, which reopened in August with help from German and Dutch funding after a 12-year hiatus. German police trainers are working with students - and their teachers - as part of a building effort to create a future police force the Afghan people can trust. Other European nations are training existing Afghan police in narcotics control, disaster response, customs, and border patrol. The US is funding a 5-year, $26 million program to give cops in the provinces a crash course in human rights and nonviolent responses to crime.

And countries around the world are contributing to a massive World Bank-monitored Law and Order Trust Fund, which doles out salaries for police, many of whom hadn't been paid in months.

All together, it's a huge step for a country where more than half of the estimated 75,000 police are conscripts and virtually none have had formal training. Under the Taliban regime, the Religious Police terrorized ordinary people with edicts forcing men to grow beards and pray five times daily, and banning women from associating with men who were not relatives.

Against this backdrop, foreign officials say the Nov. 11 student shooting underlined the urgency of police reform in Afghanistan, which they argue is as essential to the country's future stability as creating a national army - a cause that has gotten far more international attention.

Yet the incident at Kabul University also highlights the tremendous challenges they face. Police sent to quell the rioting students had neither shields nor helmets to protect themselves - nor even radios to receive orders from commanding officers. Senior police officials later claimed Taliban elements incited the students to the deadly confrontation with police, a charge students flatly rejected. Other rumors put the violence down to warlords who wanted to destabilize the fragile Kabul government.

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