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British Chief Inspector Blogs from Afghanistan

Chief Inspector Martin Cunningham, one of the British police officers seconded by the Stabilisation Unit to the EU’s Police Mission in Afghanistan, continues to blog from the country:

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

There have been times when I have wondered why I am here. On one such day, early into my life in the mission, I had this answered. We were driving back to our base from the staff college and on the way there were a couple of hundred school girls walking home from school. It could have been a scene from any developed country, they had their school bags and were talking and laughing with each other, and the only stark difference was there was no anti social behaviour that I have often witnessed at home.

Under the Taliban, these girls would not have been walking home from school at all. Whenever I get frustrated with things here I remember I am, in a very small way, contributing to these profound successes.

Before coming here, I had heard a number of things about the students I would be teaching. Some people said, ‘They are illiterate, they have no systems and structures, they do nothing but sleep in class, they cannot grasp even the most simple of concepts. You will really need to dumb it down.’ Fortunately I took the view that I would form my own opinions and assess things for myself.

Consider for a moment, ‘Can you talk for 30 minutes on the life of Winston Churchill?’ If you answered, ‘No’, you are not too different to many in the UK. Neither can I, I am ashamed to say. Ask anyone here about a historical figure like Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahedin fighter and Afghan national hero who was killed a few days before the 9/11 attacks. They will tell you everything about his life, times and accomplishments. Whilst he is a hero from recent times, the Afghan people can also tell you all about figures from the deeper past like Saltan Mamod Ghznawe, Ahmed Shah Baba and Amanulah Khan Ghaze. In a way that surpasses what I, and many Brits, could tell them about Churchill.

When I spoke to an Afghan Police Major about grading systems, he articulated the system they all know and use to good effect. During combined Military and Police exercises run by a Canadian Colleague, the Afghan police commanders were very clear about their role and the demarcation between the military and the police and most importantly how they support each other. They showed a refined understanding of systems and structures.

The learning for me here has been that the Afghan people I work with are well versed at learning through verbal communication, and their retention of knowledge is excellent. Because some of them are illiterate, the common assumption that learning is primarily a book-based skill means we can miss the point, and miss the intelligence and application that many Afghans bring to bear in their studies here. These are a very hardy and resilient people, and it is not for them to learn blind–it is for us to facilitate learning in a manner that complements their abilities and allows them to get the best out of themselves. Yes, of course we should still strive for literacy but we should not underestimate these people.

The recent promotion course of Captain to Majors was filled with literate, educated Afghans with vast experience. As for them falling asleep in class, let’s look at a couple I had on my course. One was a Staff Officer for a General. He was at work at 5am, got the General’s requirements completed, came to class and then went back to his day job until late in the evening. Two young Captains, who were always tired, concerned me. When I enquired into why they were so tired other class members explained they had some of their men working on convoy escorts throughout the night. These were pre-planned operations and they felt it was their responsibility to ‘count them out and count them in’. After a couple of hours’ sleep they came to my class. I adapted break times and activities in the class to better meet their needs.

Do not underestimate the Afghan person or the Afghan police. The ones I have met are intelligent, operationally sound, responsive to change, quick to learn, resilient, hardy and open to new ideas. These men I have been teaching are the future leaders of the Afghan National Police and they give me hope. Hope for their promising careers, and hope for Afghanistan as it transitions to Afghan security lead in the coming years. These future leaders, and the emergent national police force they are a part of, will be critical to the success of this transition.

Published 27 September 2011