Underpaid, under-equipped and under-trained, Afghanistan's 93,000-member police force is the weak link in an ambitious security strategy to hand over defense of the country to Afghans so American and other foreign troops can go home.
A strong, unified national police force has long eluded Afghanistan, a country torn by occupation and warfare for hundreds of years. But with the West now attempting to help turn the country from a failed state into at least a functioning one, the police will play a crucial role in making cities safe places to live.
That's needed to win the loyalty of ordinary Afghans, many of whom note that under the repressive rule of the Taliban, at least crime was low.
President Hamid Karzai brought the issue into sharp focus during his inaugural address Thursday, when he said he wanted Afghan security forces to take the lead in securing the nation within five years.
But some analysts estimate it could take a decade before cities can be secured by a police force that is riddled with corruption, unprofessionalism and illiteracy.
"You really do not have anything like the level of support or training for the police you have for the army," said military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The leadership within the police is much weaker, much less well trained, and far more corrupt." They often have contacts with "power brokers, criminals, drug lords and the Taliban," he said.
If the situation is not remedied, said Cordesman, Afghanistan "risks losing the war."
Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, speaking Saturday during a ceremony establishing a new NATO headquarters to oversee higher-level training and mentoring for Afghan forces, described the police as "a very decisive factor and the most important element in our public security and law enforcement."
Police on the street and manning checkpoints often find themselves on the front line of a virulent insurgency, making them three times more likely to be killed than Afghan soldiers. From January 2007 to July this year, 1,973 police were killed, compared with 735 Afghan troops.
"We are expected to fight insurgents, not just criminals," said Khan Mohammed Zazai, police chief in the violent southern province of Kandahar. He said his force faced shortages of assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, ammunition and four-wheel drive vehicles.
"There would be no need for more sophisticated weapons if we did not need to fight an insurgency. But we are fighting an insurgency as well. If we don't get better equipment, we will lose."
It is not just weapons they lack.
Standing in Kabul's chaotic Mandae Market beside banana and sunglasses vendors, Maj. Ahmed Farid Hotak of the 101 Asmey Zone National Police, which is in charge of security in the city center, pointed to one of his young subordinates, the man's shoulders hunched against the chill of a November evening.
"See, it's winter and he still has a spring uniform," Hotak said, adding that he bought himself a warm winter uniform with his own money.
Currently it's just the desperate who sign up for the job _ and even then, many leave, often taking their equipment with them. That puts more strain on a recruitment drive that has to sign up thousands just to maintain the current numbers, let alone increase the force to the recommended 160,000 by 2013. In a country where 72 percent of the population is illiterate, those who can read rarely have problems finding better-paid jobs.
Only "illiterate people will accept the salary that we pay the police," said Brig. Gen. Khudadad Agah, who is in charge of training. He said a policeman's starting salary is 6,000 afghani ($120) a month, except in Kandahar where Zazai said it is 9,000 afghani ($184) because that is a hotbed of Taliban attacks.
"An educated person will not work for 6,000 afghanis a month," Agah said.
To make things worse for the beat cop, his superior often skims 30 percent off the top of his meager salary, according to police on the street.
If current rates of attrition continue, a quarter of Afghanistan's police force will have quit by the end of next year. Thousands more will be dead or wounded.
Hotak, who has lost more than half his men, is so desperate to bolster his unit's numbers that he is ready to take anyone who passes a basic background check _ even untrained. Of the 642 in his unit, 370 couldn't make ends meet in the capital and returned home to the provinces.
"We told our colleagues `We need recruits. I need people. If they pass a background check, put them into my unit, and afterward send them to training,"' he said.
Another big worry is how many insurgents have infiltrated the police.
Earlier this month, a rogue policeman in Helmand province shot and killed five British soldiers. Although the gunman's motive was unclear, the attack risks damaging the trust between Afghan police who work side-by-side with their foreign mentors.
"It is certainly an indicator that, largely, loyalties are fickle," said Mark Moyar of the Marine Corps University, a counterinsurgency analyst who recently wrote a book on the subject.
Bringing the police up to speed will be a huge challenge even with more international help in training and equipping the national security forces.
"It's not going to be anything that can be solved in a year or two," Moyar said. "To develop the kind of leadership where the Afghans can do it largely on their own is probably 10 years out."
He said success will lie in developing a competent leadership free of corruption and a sense of professionalism throughout the force _ from top commanders to beat policemen, many of whom currently shake down street vendors for bribes.
Agah, the police training general, insisted corruption was worst among high-level police authorities. He said low-ranking policemen can't be held responsible for demanding small bribes.
"That is all done on the orders of their commanders," he said. "I cannot blame the policeman over what we should blame their commanders and bosses for."
But it is petty corruption which most affects ordinary Afghans and strengthens the insurgency. The Taliban promise accountability and had a reputation while in power of not tolerating corruption _ they would often paint the face of an accused man black to humiliate him before firing him.
Shoe salesman Golam Azat said he and other cart owners pay police a weekly fee to be allowed to sell their goods at Kabul's central market.
"It's illegal to sell on the street," he said. "If I don't pay, then they will kick me out."
The going rate is about 100 afghanis per day, or about $2. That's a princely sum for Azat who makes only 200 Afghanis ($4) a day.
"I have no money. How can I feed my children? Business is not good, so how can I pay?" he asked. "In the Taliban times, they didn't do this."
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kandahar contributed to this story.