Throughout its modern history, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has been the site of ongoing armed conflict as internal and external forces have vied for power within its borders. From 1926-1973, Afghanistan was ruled as a constitutional monarchy that largely lacked a central government. This history of decentralization has complicated later centralized state efforts, including those revolving around policing. Competition between Cold War powers in the 1970’s for influence in the country, and the 2001 US Invasion in reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks provided fertile ground for the emergence of radical Islamic groups: First, Al Qaeda in the late 1980’s, the Taliban in the 1990’s, and from the mid-2010’s, the Islamic State.
The police, with the support of the international community following the Bonn Agreement of 2002, embarked on an extensive reform process. Since then, Afghanistan’s two main state security forces, the National Army and the National Police, have struggled to extend the rule of law to all parts of the country due to security threats from insurgencies and a lack of trust from civilians. While various international organizations have promoted security in Afghanistan (including a US-led coalition, EUPOL, and NATO-led ISAF), this has been characterized by fluctuations in strategy that have hindered sustainable solutions and left the state dependent upon foreign aid. The Afghanistan Ministry of Interior (MOI) continues to make efforts to address terrorist activity and crime, despite great local and international uncertainty. The reach of state security actors, including the police, remains limited.
At the same time, a variety of non-state actors play important roles in the lives of most Afghans. Some of these are long-lasting institutions, such as the ‘shura’. The shura is a gathering of selected community members that meet to discuss disputes, mediate on behalf of aggrieved parties, or aim to address larger societal issues within their community such as rampant crime. At local levels, warlords or strongmen may demand payment from individuals and private business in exchange for protection. In some communities, neighborhood watch groups such as the ‘chowkidari’ exist. For more information about the ‘shura’ and the ‘chowkidari’, this ICT4COP article.
Human Security Concerns
The urgent need for the provision of physical security overshadows the broader human security needs of the Afghan population. The danger of constant conflict exacerbates other instabilities, including unemployment, a lack of housing and basic necessities, widespread poverty, high displacement, and migration. A feeling of desperation leads some Afghans to engage in illegal activities such as border smuggling and dealing drugs. In some areas, police are engrained in networks with a variety of actors, each benefiting from the border trade in some way. This network facilitates survival, but also relationships of dependency – for more information, read our digital story:
A Story of Survival (Afghanistan)
Afghan youth (who comprise over 68% of the population) are particularly susceptible to these activities, with unemployment leading to high levels of drug use and addiction, as well as a higher risk of being conscripted by radical religious groups. This Digital Story shows how the drivers of insecurity for Afghan youth create a vicious circle, and why understanding their interconnectedness is fundamental for meaningfully addressing the day-to-day concerns of Afghan youth:
Fragile Futures (Afghanistan)
Narrated by Jaishankar Ganapathy
Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups experience tension and conflict, particularly between two of the largest groups, the Pashtun and the Hazara. This dynamic is often reflected in Afghanistan’s political landscape, which in turn leads to further conflict over political power.
Women in Afghanistan face gender-based violence including domestic and sexual abuse, and honor-related crimes without any formal recourse or referral process. Minorities may face discrimination, neglect and abuse, even from police, due to their religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Finally, there are significant differences in the presence and efficacy of police between urban and rural areas, to the extent that some rural areas may be completely removed from the national security efforts.
Status of Police Reform and COP
Afghan police training has occurred under distinct phases, including an initial training period from 2002-2009 and a NATO-led police training mission (known as NTM-A) from 2009-2014. Efforts surrounding police reform and COP in Afghanistan currently operate under the MOI’s 10 Year Strategic Vision (2014-2024) to reform and demilitarize its police forces. This reform has led to improvements in police efficiency through internal structural changes meant to address corruption and improve the chain of command. This includes the establishment of the Police-e-Mardumi (PeM) community policing directorate in 2016. The MOI and PeM have been involved in a number of important initiatives to promote human security through police-community collaboration, including partnering with technical institutions to aid in the provision of services and infrastructure, and partnering with family, educational, and religious institutions to aid in the prevention of crime and implementation of rule of law. Since its establishment, PeM has sought to establish 19 diverse councils in each of the police districts of Kabul that include elders, religious persons, women, youth, students, and police officers to address community issues. Beyond Kabul, PeM has expanded to include offices in the 34 provinces of Afghanistan that incorporate or build upon previously existing shura to enable them to work proactively to prevent crime, in addition to the provision of justice. Although it is too early to observe an impact of these forms on human security, it does attest to a commitment by the government to improve police-community relations. Despite the deteriorating security and political situation since the 2019 elections, the government has continued to roll out these initiatives in the provinces to address human insecurity.
Another important element of police reform in Afghanistan has been the inclusion and protection of women police officers, through initiatives like a women police helpline and the establishment of women police associations. Although only 2% of Afghan police are women, there has been momentum within the MOI to increase this number, through the provision of better education opportunities and working conditions for women in the police. Some of the challenges for women police in Afghanistan can be seen in the following digital story:
Recruit Into Danger (Afghanistan)
Narrated by A. Heather Coyne
There have been numerous efforts by both international and civil society organizations to bolster police services and increase human security. For instance, UNDP has assisted in the establishment of an emergency response system called PERS, provided upgrades to police station infrastructure, and have supported improvements to police training and recruitment. In the six northern provinces, the German organization GIZ has aided in the further creation and expansion of local development shura (community development committees), conducted joint COP training sessions for police and communities, and raised awareness about the role of police in community. Meanwhile, NGO’s have participated in the development of COP historically, running internationally funded projects such as a GIZ-funded project to establish neighborhood watch committees (NWCs) and providing critical feedback of ongoing COP efforts provided by the PeM.
While both local and international reform efforts have aided the promotion of COP in Afghanistan, it is worth noting that these efforts have been heavily impacted by Afghanistan’s security and political situation – as of 2020, 15 of the 19 Kabul councils have been hindered by security threats. Today, the larger security situation in Afghanistan remains fluid. The presidential election of 2019 remains unresolved as of July 2020, with both candidates claiming victory. At the same time, the US has negotiated its withdrawal from the country with the Taliban, without Afghan government involvement, portending an uncertain future for stability and security of Afghanistan.