British-trained Afghan police have arrested suspected Taliban bomb-makers, seized a cache of Soviet-era weapons and blitzed opium-growers in a series of recent raids.
Senior UK officials pointed to the growing independence of the Afghan National Police (ANP) in planning and executing operations as evidence they are shaking off their reputation for corruption and incompetence.
They said ANP applicants in Helmand province, where most of the 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan are based, are now less likely to be addicted to drugs and more likely to remain in the force.
Nato's strategy for pulling out of Afghanistan is based on handing over security to the ANP and the Afghan National Army by the end of 2014. Police numbers across the country stand at around 116,000 - including 7,000 in Helmand - with a target of reaching 134,000 by October.
In the past Afghan police officers were notorious for taking drugs, extorting bribes from local people, turning a blind eye to opium smuggling and abandoning their posts. Five British soldiers were murdered by a rogue Afghan policeman at a checkpoint in Nad-e-Ali in Helmand in November 2009. But UK military and civilian advisers involved in building up the ANP insisted the situation had improved.
David Slinn, head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Afghan drugs and justice unit, told reporters at the Ministry of Defence in London: "We're in a much better place than this time last year, but a lot still remains to be done." He said retaining ANP recruits was a "big issue" 12 months ago because of factors including casualties, poor pay, lack of discipline and weak leadership.
The attrition rate has come down considerably, although it remains a problem in the paramilitary Afghan National Civil Order Police. In the past four months 22 Afghan police officers have been killed in the British area of operations in Helmand, of which 10 died in road accidents.
Lieutenant Colonel Adam Griffiths, commanding officer of the Helmand police development and advisory training team, said the number of potential recruits failing initial drug tests for opiates has fallen from 8-10% to less than 2% in the past four months. "I think the message is getting out to the district chiefs that there is no point recruiting opiate users to the police because they won't get in," he said.
He admitted that the Afghan uniformed police had well-known "past indiscretions" but insisted they were now "significantly more accountable and professional than at any time before".
All new recruits to the ANP undergo extensive screening to check they are not Taliban members trying to infiltrate the security forces. Over the past four months only two people have been rejected as a result of biometric testing, both because they had criminal records, said Lt Col Griffiths.