Top Afghan Army and police officials who will oversee security in one of the country's hardest-fought provinces are visiting Southern California this week to get a look at how the United States teaches its children, treats its prisoners and patrols its border with Mexico.
The three-day tour hosted by the Marine Corps started Wednesday. It is part of efforts to professionalize Afghanistan's security forces so they can take over from U.S. troops, the majority of whom are expected to pull out of that country by the close of next year.
The visiting Afghan officials are seasoned military and law enforcement authorities from Helmand province, which has seen the war's heaviest fighting but also has made progress in rescuing communities from the Taliban insurgency's grips. Sections of Helmand province are now transitioning from NATO to Afghan security control, as part of the handover that will see all international combat forces out of the country or in a different role by the end of 2014.
"Afghans have been at war for three decades, most soldiers and police are in their 20s and 30s, so they've literally never witnessed a functioning system, so this is good opportunity to see a system that works reasonably well and see how to adapt it to their own culture and communities," said Gretchen Peters, an author who has given talks to the Marines on Afghanistan.
The Afghan officials on Wednesday will meet educators at an elementary school at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego; watch live-fire trainings by Marines; attend an officers' course; and visit a mock Afghan village on base where troops are put under combat stress.
The Marine Corps said the other days will include a visit to a checkpoint manned by the U.S. Border Patrol. Along Afghanistan's long border with Pakistan, officials face drug smuggling and illegal crossers just as the United States does with Mexico, although Afghanistan's border is much tougher to control with armed incursions, inclement weather and mountainous terrain. Up until recently, it was too dangerous for Afghanistan's border police to go within hundreds of miles of the border.
During their visit, the officials also will be taken by military helicopter to Los Angeles County where they will visit a jail and meet with officials from the Los Angeles Police Department. On Friday, they will attend a graduation ceremony of recruits at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego. They also will visit the U.S. Coast Guard in the port city.
Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told The Associated Press that the number of Marines in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan will drop "markedly" in 2012, and the role of those who stay will shift from countering the insurgency to training and advising Afghan security forces.
Afghans fear their nation could plunge into civil war once the foreign forces go home. While their confidence in their security forces has risen, they still have profound doubts as to whether the Afghan soldiers and police will be ready to secure the entire nation in three years.
U.S. Marines have been working closely with their Afghan counterparts and police to get them up to speed.
"It's absolutely imperative that we get them out here to continue to exchange ideas so they are prepared. Over there, we can only talk to them and show them so much," said Marine Maj. Jared Spurlock, who worked with Afghan Army soldiers in Helmand province during his seven-month deployment that ended in May.
"There will always be challenges with corruption in that part of the world, so any chance we get to show them how to do things with zero corruption and that things can work, is good," he added.
Those visiting include Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, the commanding general of the Afghan National Army No. 215 Corps, headquartered in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. His units have responsibility for the southern provinces of Helmand and Nimroz and part of Farah.
Also visiting was Maj. Gen. Nabi Jan Mullah Khil, the regional deputy police chief of the Afghan National Police, who used to be a highway commander and served as police chief in several provinces. The others are a commanding officer under Mullah Khil who oversees part of Afghanistan's border police and two other Army officials from the 215 Corps.
Michael Semple, a research fellow for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, has followed the careers of several of the visiting Afghan officials and said they are the cream of the crop.
"These are very serious professionals who have risked their lives day after day after day and literally had hundreds of their colleagues blown up, killed and shot, and still they go in to work," he said. "This (trip) is a morale boost for dedicated public servants who have been in institutions that have had a lot of bad press over the years. For them to be treated like VIPs, flown around the world and welcomed to California where they will rub shoulders with fellow professionals is all good and will help them do their work."
But he said he doesn't know how much of what they observe in California they will be able to apply at home.
Associated Press reporters Patrick Quinn and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.