KABUL — One by one, the graduating Afghan police cadets marched onto a stage, clicked their heels and shouted vows of dedication to their war-weary country as they proudly hoisted their diplomas overhead.
"I am serving our suffering nation of Afghanistan!" one yelled to the audience, prompting enthusiastic applause from his classmates.
Fifty cadets became lieutenants last week in the Afghan National Civil Order Police, the first alumni of a 22-week program to train a force modeled on European police services such as French gendarmes and Italian carabinieri.
Officials say the graduates of the European Gendarmerie Force program will play a key role as the elite of "Afghanistan's finest" in a country badly in need of reliable, competent and respected police.
The ANCOP, one of six categories of Afghan police, is considered the brightest spot in what is largely an otherwise troubled force beset by an array of ills including corruption, drug use, illiteracy and desertion.
Tanned and wearing blue-gray fatigues, the cadets listened intently as Afghan and allied officials praised their service to country.
"Today is a day for you to stand proud," said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, NATO's head of the Afghan training mission. "Today you join an elite force: the best trained, educated and most professional element within the Afghan National Police — and the most respected by the international community."
While Afghan and NATO troops are leading the fight against Taliban insurgents, police have a greater daily role among Afghan citizens, who NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal says must be won over if international forces are to succeed in Afghanistan — and eventually return home.
Battlefield successes, the thinking goes, ultimately need to underpin long-term stability and security in the towns and cities where people live — and where police must one day keep the peace in a country that hasn't known it for years.
McChrystal has made force enlargement a priority, and NATO's pledges to send more military and police trainers have been a hot topic in recent weeks.
Hosting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted Afghan police have taken far more casualties than international forces.
"The police are the face of government that people see every day. They are essential to sustaining security after military gains," Clinton said. "This is a complicated undertaking and progress comes slowly, but we are reforming training and beginning to see results though programs to rebuild trust and increase professionalism in the ranks."
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, noting the often unfavorable public image of police, has set six goals including speeding up the response time to requests for public assistance, battling drug use, improving oversight, and increasing ethnic and gender diversity within the ranks.
Officials say some of those concerns were addressed in the class of graduating ANCOP officers. But in a country where illiteracy is common, some officers cannot read, their French trainers said. And the class was all male and most were ethnic Tajiks, suggesting that the effort to have a diverse force has a way to go.
ANCOP has faced sky-high attrition — up to 80 percent — because its personnel were often overworked, said Canadian Maj. Gen. Michael J. Ward, Caldwell's deputy for police training.
"The problem with ANCOP was that they were being overused," Ward said in an interview this month. "Because they were being successful, they were everybody's immediate answer to any crisis or challenge."
Rising police salaries and parity in pay with soldiers — policies introduced in December — have begun reducing the high attrition rates in the security services, NATO officials have said.
This graduating class is only a fraction of the national police force of about 102,000. But French officials trumpeted a "multiplier effect," saying the training they received would filter down through the ANCOP ranks.
NATO, which is clearly eager to play up the improving skills of the police, says the cadets made important strides in areas like marksmanship and tactics for tracking insurgents who plant roadside bombs.
But perhaps more than techniques for rooting out bombs or ridding dusty Afghan streets of drug dealers, the underlying message was that these officers will serve Afghanistan, not their own tribes, families, ethnic groups — or pockets.
"I decided to become an officer to bring peace to this country like there is elsewhere," said cadet Kamal Udin of Parwan province north of Kabul. "I chose this so Afghanistan will have the rule of law ... the important thing is to put those who break it in jail, and to fight terrorism."
Gen. Gul Nabi Ahmad Zai, the head of training for Afghan police, said recruits understand the stakes.
"Our police are getting stronger day by day," Zai said. "The lessons have been to teach recruits who the enemies of Afghanistan are, and to work for the better of Afghanistan."
"The people of Afghanistan are watching us."
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah contributed to this report.