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Cut Overseas Police Training Programs

Photograph Source: Lorie Shaull from St Paul, United States – CC BY-SA 2.0

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ignited protests across the United States and calls to demilitarize and defund the police.

A similar demand should be made to cut overseas police training programs including in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government has long adopted overseas police training as a cornerstone of nation building and counterinsurgency programs.

The idea is that American police will instill professional and democratic standards, including a respect for civil liberties among foreign counterparts and help stabilize violence prone countries.

The Floyd killing has exposed, however, that American police lack professional and humane standards and need to be retrained and reformed. They are ill suited to improve other countries’ police.

In Afghanistan, where the U.S. has spent an estimated $87 billion dollars over nineteen years training security forces, the police are notorious for corruption, sectarianism, incompetence and brutality.

In an interview quoted in the Afghanistan Papers, Thomas Johnson, a Navy official who served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Kandahar province, said that Afghans viewed the police as predatory bandits, calling them “the most hated institution” in Afghanistan.

This latter outcome resulted in part from the militarized tactics promoted by American advisers and their importation of police technologies which could be used for repressive ends.

In Honduras, where the U.S. expanded police aid following a 2009 coup d’états that ousted the mildly progressive José Manuel Zelaya, American trained units have been implicated in torture and drug related corruption, and carried out predawn raids of activists involved in protesting contested elections.

These units were trained under an initiative promoted by President Obama and extended by Trump that provided hundreds of millions of dollars for law enforcement training and assistance, mostly under the War on Drugs.

In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration created the United States Agency for International Development’s infamous Office of Public Safety (OPS), to modernize the police forces in countries considered vulnerable to communist subversion.

Headed by CIA agent Byron Engle, who combined a deep commitment to civilian police work with an appreciation for the darker areas of political police intelligence, the OPS initially employed liberal reformers.

As political policing gained primacy, however, OPS agents became contemptuous of human rights and imported policing technologies that were used to hunt down dissidents and violently quell protests.

Charles Maechling Jr., staff director of the Special Group on Counterinsurgency under Kennedy, acknowledged that in failing to “insist on even rudimentary standards of criminal justice and civil rights, the United States provided regimes having only a façade of constitutional safeguards with up-dated law enforcement machinery readily adaptable to political intimidation and state terrorism. Record keeping in particular was immediately put to use tracking down student radicals and union organizers.”

By 1973, the OPS was abolished by Congress because of its connection to torture carried out by U.S. trained police forces in South Vietnam and Brazil.

Many OPS veterans subsequently returned to work for police forces back in the U.S., where some continued to promote tactics that encouraged police abuse, including in the suppression of urban riots.

Unfortunately, there is a long pattern of abuse in American police forces, that overseas police programs have helped to compound.

As momentum grows for a transformation of the police, activists should be demanding an end to the practice of exporting police repression and a change to the American approach towards foreign policy more broadly.

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Jeremy Kuzmarov is the author of The Russians are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (Monthly Review Press, 2018) and Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting for the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019).

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