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Looking to TV for heroes

In Afghanistan, fictitious elite police unit battles unflattering stereotypes.

KABUL, Afghanistan - It's the night shift at a Kabul checkpoint, and police officer Mohammed Saleem will soon be searching suspicious vehicles for hidden bombs, checking ID papers - and watching his favorite TV show.

A new TV series called Eagle Four has gained a devoted following in Afghanistan, chronicling life in an imaginary, elite unit of Kabul police that operates free of the corruption, brutality, and drug addiction that infect the real cops.

Detective dramas are popular around the world. But the portrayal of honest, competent police officers has a special resonance in Afghanistan, where the men in blue are more likely to ask for bribes than run to the rescue.

"It is really a great inspiration for all Afghan police," said Saleem, 27, who keeps a small television in a shelter near the checkpoint he mans in this often-violent capital city. "They are using very good, new techniques."

The program, which airs weekly on Tolo TV, the biggest private TV network in Afghanistan, is loosely inspired by American series such as 24. It gets some funding - nobody will give even a ballpark figure - from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Although the American backers and Afghan producers won't say much about the aim of the show besides its entertainment value, the series coincides with a U.S.-led program to train enough police and army recruits so that NATO can turn over the lead for security to Afghan forces by 2014.

Creating an efficient and reliable security force is crucial to undercutting the Taliban - both on the battlefield and in the eyes of the Afghan people, who do not trust the justice system. The Taliban has long used Afghanistan's corruption and lawlessness as a recruiting tool, promising stability and the rule of law through strict Islamic justice.

While the real Afghan police force is struggling, the Eagle Four unit is dazzling. Chief Amin and his squad can take out a suicide bomber with a single shot and defuse a bomb with seconds to go. They also pore through computer databases - no big deal in most countries but noteworthy in Afghanistan, where most officers can't read or write.

They are shown dealing with family issues at home - a way of humanizing the very people many Afghans look to with a mixture of hatred and fear.

In one episode, Chief Amin's young son is breathing through an oxygen mask in a hospital after suffering a near-fatal asthma attack. But a suicide bomber is on the loose in Kabul, and only the Eagle Four can stop him.

"I really should be there with my son, but foiling a terrorist attack takes precedence," Chief Amin, the unit's commander, says with a resolute stare.

His team of crime-fighters is coed - two men and two women, working as equals - which is unheard of in Afghanistan.

"The characters we are playing are a lesson for our police so they can wake up," Abdullatif Qanaat, 55, who plays Chief Amin, said in an interview Thursday. "Thirty years of war has been a disaster for us in Afghanistan. The police can be good, but they are not educated. The show can inspire them."

Casting the show and filming on the streets of Afghanistan carried unique challenges. Only six of the 300 people who auditioned for the show were women, making it difficult to fill two key roles.

One woman dropped out when her husband arrived on the set, took her by the hand, and led her home. Another woman who had shot a few scenes quit a day later, forcing the producers to kill off her character.

A conservative elder, apparently offended by the program, tried to gather a mob to stop the filming, but "we hurried and finished before they got us," said the director, Ghafar Azad, 24. Actors also get threatening phone calls and text messages, presumably from the Taliban, several members of the show said.