11 Aug 2009

'We have eradicated corruption. Nearly'

The police chief sat on his swivel chair beneath a gold framed photograph of President Karzai, the national flag on one side and a giant plastic plant with red flowers the size of dinner plates on the other.

“We have eradicated corruption in our police force!” said Colonel Asadullah Shirzaid, a small smile creeping across his plump visage.

“Then you’re the first police force in the world to do so,” I remarked. Col Shirzaid rethought.

“We are trying our best,” he said. “They are human beings. If any corruption remains, it’s a very, very low percentage.”

After the interview was over, he squeezed his corpulent frame out from behind the desk. At the far end of the room, a widescreen TV was showing a black-and-white film of Charlie Chaplin as Hitler spinning a huge bomb with a rope. It exploded.

The Colonel felt the need to explain further. “You know, I made a mistake. When I said we had eradicated corruption, it’s impossible. We just nearly have.” I agreed it was a mistake anyone might make.

Corruption amongst the police force is one of Afghanistan’s biggest problems. People complain that the police prey upon them, and almost any contact involves a bribe.

Here in Helmand, where opium poppy is the major source of income, and smuggling a way of life, it’s probably quite hard for police officers NOT to be corrupt. The British who are – as they put – “mentoring” the Afghan forces have just started a programme of drug testing the police, as many of those who deal in opium apparently use it as well.

But the most urgent problem for the police here is to guarantee the security of next week’s elections. Not easy. This year 189 Helmand police have been killed by insurgents, many while manning remote checkpoints. The Taliban have vowed to attack polling stations and kill anyone who dares to vote.

“Everyone is scared,” said Razia Baluch, a candidate for one of the reserved seats for women on the provincial council.

Our friend the police chief was characteristically optimistic.

“I have no big concerns because we are well prepared to respond to any action from the enemy,” he said. So that’s all right then.