KABUL (Reuters) -- General Sayed Mohammad Qudossi, who commands Afghanistan's national police academy, says his students are healthy, trustworthy, and literate.
But they are not soldiers and should not be judged too harshly.
"When the enemy comes, he will always attack the gate first and that's where the police are. A policeman defends his station, his village, his town," Qudossi said.
"It's not the responsibility of the police, this is a military job...My shoulders are burdened, the police are burdened," he added from his spacious office in Kabul.
Claims of ineffectiveness and corruption have stalked the Afghan National Police (ANP) for years and the force is often accused of taking bribes at checkpoints, colluding with local Taliban and keeping phantom employees on their payroll.
Attention to such shortcomings has risen among Afghanistan's Western backers since last week when a policeman in Helmand Province shot dead five British soldiers serving as trainers.
Qudossi says much of the criticism leveled at the force is unfair, in part a result of expectations that it act as a military force in a war zone.
"If you keep saying someone is bad, then they will behave that way, it is a psychological thing. Today, if our police are not at the same level as police in Germany or Britain, they are at least as good as other forces in Asia," Qudossi said.
U.S. military trainers on the ground have complained about illiteracy among low-ranking Afghan police, their lack of discipline, sloppy recruitment procedures in the provinces, and their exposure to insurgent attacks because of poor training.
Some 1,500 Afghan police were killed in fighting between 2007 and 2009, three times as many deaths as suffered by soldiers from the Afghan Army.
"Police have to have proper equipment, clothes, minds...with empty hands and minds he cannot do anything," Qudossi said.
Recruits From The Street
The commander of the more than 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, has made the strengthening and expansion of the Afghan police and army one of his top priorities in his assessment of military strategy.
But plans have a way of getting bogged down in Afghanistan: Qudossi's police academy is closed for the next three weeks as part of government efforts to contain an outbreak of swine flu.
There are more than 80,000 policemen in Afghanistan, including 8,000 sergeants and 1,737 officers. The Afghan Interior Ministry wants to double its size to 160,000 in line with Washington's demands for larger Afghan security forces to shoulder more of the burden of the fight against insurgents.
Recruits are supposed to be healty individuals between 17 and 25 years old. Qudossi said standards are sometimes loosened to fill the ranks in remote provinces.
"In Helmand, maybe they will get someone from the market and just make him a policeman. They must not just gather them from the street," he said. He also said authorities should stop recruiting police to serve in their own districts, a practice that risks drawing them into village feuds.
"For example, if they are to work in Kandahar, then hire them from Mazar-e Sharif," Qudossi said, referring to two cities far apart in Afghanistan.
Outside his office, a few students who live at the academy sat on a patch of lawn in their grey flannel uniforms.
"I want to serve my country so that it can be free. We are not scared of the enemy because we are here to do a job," said Najibullah, 21, from Kunduz. "The test is difficult, but the job is not hard if you really want to do it."
With a police official hovering beside them, Najibullah and his classmates had nothing to say about the shootings in Helmand.