KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Here is a meme that briefly made the rounds on Afghan social media: “Breaking news,” it reads. “A suicide bomber has been robbed by thieves in Kabul. The thieves took from him his suicide vest, the detonators, and 2,000 afghanis.” (About $25.)
It’s kind of a joke, but mostly not.
For years, the bombing and infiltration attacks that racked Kabul have dominated headlines and reshaped the city. But that kind of violence in the capital has been at a relative lull for months as the Taliban and United States conduct peace negotiations that officials hope could lead to some sort of lasting cease-fire.
Now the headlines are coming to grips with the rampant crime that has become a steady drumbeat in the city: kidnappings, robbery at gunpoint, extortion, murder. Even without the bombings, Kabul is proving a dangerous place to be.
Social media platforms are filled with daily reports of muggings and knife attacks, often just to steal a cellphone. In one of the most brutal recent cases, a family of four was axed to death at home in the daytime.
Afghan security officials said the brief window of calm from terrorist attacks has provided a wake-up call. They said the country’s law enforcement has been so militarized over the two decades of constant war with the Taliban that officers are profoundly unprepared for the basic needs of policing in time of peace.
Massoud Andarabi, Afghanistan’s interior minister, said crime trends are not drastically worse than in past years — some weeks are more intense than others, as you would expect. But collectively, and compulsively, Kabul residents have seized on crime as the topic of the day.
“If someone’s mobile phone was stolen on the afternoon of a suicide attack that killed 80, family and friends would have told him it’s good you are not killed. But now people are looking at the deeper reality,” Andarabi said.
For years, police forces have borne the brunt of the Taliban’s campaign of violence. Their staggering casualty rate, even as many in their leadership ranks prospered from corruption, has made recruiting and training more of a matter of triage than a consistent, thorough program.
In any given week, about 70% of Taliban attacks target police outposts around the country, Andarabi said. In some of those places, police forces can barely count on being resupplied, let alone on retraining for a future of crime fighting rather than counterinsurgency.
“We are talking about post-peace when the peace is not yet known,” Andarabi said. “When it comes to police’s professionalization, I have no doubt the fight is really impacting it.”
Andarabi, 39, a systems and data man who spent a decade in the country’s spy agency before he was moved to lead the interior ministry, was part of a young team brought in last year to shake up a corrupt bureaucracy that was losing on the battlefield. The team largely delivered on its immediate task — holding ground in the face of what amounted to the highest number of Taliban attacks in a decade.
But in a sign of how distrusted and depleted regular police forces had become, the ministry had to draw heavily on the elite special forces. From police chiefs of half of the country’s 34 provinces up to the country’s top cop, all were replaced with young special forces officers who are more used to leading commando raids in enemy territory than the patient work of community policing.
To aid their fight, Andarabi has introduced improvements. They include assigning remote police outposts GPS technology to help in resupplying them and bringing more accountability to the force’s use of munition, fuel and food.
He initiated a 2,500-strong “internal security” unit tasked with watching over police, long seen as corrupt, and starting detailed files on each officer around the country.
Designed for about 1 million people, Kabul has grown to about 6 million residents, and in unregulated ways. Shantytowns are splashed high up on the hills that cup the city. Electricity is rationed, with large parts of the city in the dark on any given night.
Accessibility is a problem, too. In the winter, some neighborhoods are inaccessible by even heavy-duty police trucks. Other alleys are blocked by the blast walls and watchtowers that attend the moneyed elite. Getting to a police office, one of the premier targets for car bombers, requires weaving through layers of concrete blast walls.
“You need foundations for a city to be able to secure — a proper address, residents with proper IDs, a municipal system with standards,” Andarabi said. “These are the foundations on which you can build a security layer, and these foundations are not there.”