ST. MATHIAS - Frank Ball's resume must have impressed U.S. State Department officials who were looking for law officers to train Afghan national police.
The former Crow Wing County sheriff and Brainerd police chief said three-quarters of the two-hour interview was spent talking about the movie, "Fargo," which featured a pregnant Brainerd police chief.
Ball originally thought he was being interviewed to command one of seven regional training centers but later discovered he was being offered the job of contingent commander of the entire Afghanistan National Police training program.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Ball said last week at his St. Mathias home.
Ball is currently the executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. The interview for the post in Afghanistan came after had served as director of the alcohol and gambling division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Frank Ball, former Crow Wing County sheriff and Brainerd police chief, talked about his current job as executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. He formerly enforced laws against association members when he was with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
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Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey
Intrigued by the prospect of working overseas, Ball said he thought "this could be an adventure."
He was right.
While serving 15 months in Afghanistan (starting in 2005), Ball came to admire the courage of the military forces serving there and the Afghan people. He also was amazed at the corruption and the tremendous influence of the nation's poppy crop, which is grown as a cash crop and used for heroin.
Seven people under his command died in Afghanistan: three U.S. police officers, three Nepalese security contractors and one South African security contractor.
The State Department hired a private contractor, Dyn Corp International, to conduct the training. Dyn Corp was Ball's employer.
Ball said he would be introduced to various tribal officials in his travels but it was easy to see that the person with real power was the druglord. That person had the financial resources to offer much higher wages to young men then the Afghan government could pay its police officers.
During the height of the Taliban's control of Afghanistan, Ball said, the country pretty much ran on revenue from poppies.
Ball's job was to train Afghans police in western civilian policing concepts. His students were between the ages of 15-30 and were unsophisticated to western ways. Many of them had never seen themselves in a mirror or didn't know how to use a portable toilet.
Each district in Afghanistan was required to supply a certain number of young men for police training.
"They were hauled in in trucks," Ball said.
Security was ever-present, Ball said. The armored vehicles they used weighed 16,000 pounds.
"We moved around by helicopters," Ball said. "The roads were terrible."
Ball's tenure in Afghanistan was part of a 18-month $600 million program involving the Departments of Defense and State. Directly and indirectly, Ball said the program trained 82,000 Afghan civilian police officers.
Initially, the Afghan police who were trained had no weapons or only primitive ones, said Ball.
"Some had dorky little guns," he recalled.
He credited U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus with convincing authorities that the national police would need to be armed. Soon they had AK-47s and received firearms training.
If there was a down side of the arming of the Afghan police it was that it had the effect of ramping up the flow of money for corruption by the druglords, Ball said.
"The corruption has to be dealt with," he said.
The police trainers faced obstacles even when others tried to help their situation. They acquired gas engine Jeeps but only diesel fuel was available for fuel. They acquired ambulances but there were no hospitals or trauma centers.
"We had endless problems," Ball recalled, comparing the situation to having six balls thrown to you at once.
Slowly as the trainers worked with the young Afghans, Ball could see progress being made. The Afghans were eager to learn.
"Once it clicked they were like sponges," he said.
The Afghan people were great farmers, Ball said. If the corruption can be ended he thinks progress can continue. He said that toward the end of his time in Afghanistan it was more common to see kids outside playing - a sign of stability. Ball predicted that a U.S. military presence will be necessary in Afghanistan for about 10 years.
"By the time I left I saw a spark in this group of Afghan people," he said. "If we can endure this thing ... We're making a huge difference."
He said the current U.S. policy is on the right track if Americans don't lose patience. Whatever happens in the future Ball said he gained a new appreciation for the liberties he enjoys.
"You really appreciate the U.S.," he said. "Don't take this freedom for granted."
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