A unit of about 50 Iowa National Guard troops that arrived in Afghanistan about a year ago are preparing to return to Iowa sometime in May.

Colonel Tom Staton of Urbandale, the unit’s commander, says about half the unit has been focused has been on training the Afghan National Police. "It’s important to note that the police are the face of the government to the Afghan people and for so long that face has been associated with corruption and unprofessionalism," Staton says. "Our intent is to train the police to be a well-led, professional police force dedicated to upholding the rule of law and winning the support of the people."

Afghans don’t trust the police, according to Staton, because in the past the Afghan Police were "very corrupt" and did things like cover up crimes and collect illicit tolls along the border. "What we’re trying to do first and foremost is develop a police force that’s loyal to the central government, loyal to the rule of law in Afghanistan," Staton says. "And then what we’re trying to do is develop a community policing program where the police are there to support the people and help the people of the community, not so much loyal to a local governor or another powerbroker."

That is opposite the U.S. model where police and sheriff’s deputies are hired by city and county officials. Staton says while most Afghan Police are recruited locally and have ties to their communities, they’re still managed by the country’s central government. "What we’re finding here is that the government of Afghanistan at the local level is not very mature, tends to be corrupt and so we’re trying to establish a strong central government," Staton says.

Staton says he’s seeing the "seeds" of economic development begin to flourish in northern Afghanistan where he’s been stationed for nearly a year. "The northern region of Afghanistan…tends to be the most secure region. Just in the year that we’ve been here, we’ve seen tremendous growth," Staton says. "…Many road projects are going in. The roads are key to getting goods and services into the area. Along those key roads we see a tremendous improvement in buildup of buildings — businesses, homes."

But Staton is concerned by the "growing criminal element" in northern Afghanistan that has ties to the insurgency. Staton says the difficult terrain of Afghanistan also leads to talk of some regions splitting off and joining neighboring countries — or some regions of Afghanistan declaring independence from the central government. But Staton says he believes Afghanistan will, in time, thrive as a unified country led by a strong central government. When Staton’s unit first arrived in Afghanistan in May of 2007, the Iowa soldiers helped train the Afghan Army, but about half of the Iowa Guard soldiers, including Staton, were switched to training the Afghan Police.

You can listen to Staton’s Sunday morning telephone conversation with Radio Iowa by clicking on the audio link below.

AUDIO: Staton calls from Afghanistan (mp3 runs 12 min)