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The Battle for the Afghan Border
A frontier guard stands on a bridge to Afghanistan across Panj river in Panji Poyon border outpost, south of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, May 31, 2008.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

The Battle for the Afghan Border

 
 

DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN — “I was at war every night for three years… In one day, we lost 10 people. I was there. I was wounded.”

Maj. Raziq Muradi, of the Afghan Border Police (ABP), rolls up his sleeve. Bullet wounds pockmark his forearm. “It was the Taliban.”

Muradi had been stationed in Herat Province when the Taliban attacked his post along the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. Four years ago, northern Afghanistan was considered a relatively peaceful area of the country. Now, the Taliban has a presence in all eight of the provinces bordering Central Asia. Many of the militants come from neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

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Muradi’s experience highlights the growing challenges facing border guards in Afghanistan. As the Taliban expands its territory to an extent not seen since 2001, the ABP, a branch of the Afghan National Army (ANA), is under renewed pressure to clamp down on cross-border drug trafficking and militant activity.

In Afghanistan, border security is inseparable from the larger war effort. The Taliban insurgency thrives off the country’s weak borders. As Imran Sadat, an international coordinator at the Afghan Customs Department (ACD) explains, “Taliban fighters enter Afghanistan, fight, and retreat across the border, where security forces cannot pursue them.”

Meanwhile, poor border security opens the door to drug trafficking, one of the Taliban’s main sources of funding. According to Sadat, “Smugglers use Afghanistan to produce opium, and then send it across the borders through Pakistan and Central Asia to Europe, to Russia.” In return for protecting, and in some cases physically aiding, poppy growers, the Taliban receives a 10 percent cut of sales. The poppy trade is estimated to generate $500 million per year in revenue for the Taliban.

What do Afghanistan’s border guards see as the main obstacles to securing the frontier? And what will it take to turn the tide? To answer these questions, I spoke to 13 members of the Afghan Border Police and five members of the Afghan Customs Department during the UNDP’s annual border management training course in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The group was diverse – geographically, ethnically, linguistically – yet time and again interviewees hit the same points: Afghanistan’s borders are under-resourced, beset by corruption, and defenseless in the face of foreign meddling.

The interviewees, many of them mid-level officers who have seen combat, had strong opinions about the path forward for Afghanistan. Taking these perspectives into account is critical as the Trump administration prepares to ramp up U.S. involvement in this now 16-year-old war.

***

Of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, 16 are border provinces. The sheer length of the border demands a constant investment of manpower, weapons, equipment, and vehicles. But officials say the resources are simply not there.

“Our problem is that we are under-resourced,” says 1st Lt. Gulrahim Zubair of the ABP, based in Kunduz. Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, was recaptured by the Taliban in 2015 in a major setback to the NATO-led war effort. “We don’t have enough equipment. Not enough cars. No modern weapons. Not enough tanks and Humvees. We don’t even have replacement tires. And we don’t have enough people,” the first lieutenant says.

Sanaullah Stanikzai, an evaluations officer in the ACD, likens policing the border to plugging up holes in a sinking boat with one finger. “The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is 2,000 km. But there’s not enough forces… When we put police in one part of the border, they just go through another part.”

Afghanistan’s terrain further compounds the problem. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or Durand Line, runs along the Hindu Kush mountain range. The region is vast and rugged, with few paved roads or military outposts. “Over there it’s mountainous, it’s hard to patrol,” says Sadat of the ACD. “If you go on foot they will use snipers and shoot you down.”

“With an area that big, you need a sufficient air force,” he says. “Helicopters, F-16s. Then you can monitor it… But we don’t have enough weapons, enough equipment, enough air force. For 34 provinces, we only have ten or 11 helicopters, 15 to 20 jets.”

Sadat believes the answer lies in the United States and NATO assisting Afghanistan to build up its air force. But while the United States has helped train Afghan pilots, it has been slow to donate aircraft to the country. A year-long push to get India to deliver spare aircraft parts has yet to bear fruit.

For now, managing the Durand Line remains the job of Afghanistan’s understaffed ground forces. Desperate to boost troop levels, the ANA recently raised the recruitment age from 35 to 40 and launched an ad campaign aimed at young people. But for Stanikzai, these efforts miss the point. He blames the ANA’s low recruitment on poor wages and lack of compensation for families of soldiers who are injured or killed.

“If a soldier is killed, [the ANA] pay for two months, no more. Their families become beggars. So no one wants to join the police or military.”

***

Of the officers I spoke to, nearly all of them identified corruption as a major challenge to policing the border.

“Within the military, the biggest problem is not ethnic division or incompetence,” says Maj. Syed Mohammad Dawlatzai, of the ABP based in Nangarhar Province. “It’s corruption.”

“Of the border guards, maybe 98 percent will work for their homeland,” says Sadat. “But maybe two percent work only for the money. You can’t guess who it is… You don’t know who to trust.”

Corruption is a double-edged sword for border police. From a security perspective, border guards who accept bribes from militants, drug smugglers, and human traffickers perpetuate insecurity at the border, making their own jobs more difficult. On a more fundamental level, the perception of corruption in the military undermines trust in the state and pushes people into the arms of the Taliban, who are perceived to have always punished corruption harshly.

“When there’s corruption… when leaders take your money, harass you, make problems for you, people will support the Taliban,” says Stanikzai, an ethnic Pashtun who remembers life under Taliban rule. “With the Taliban, there were no problems like this… If you take away corruption, you take away the reason to support the Taliban.”

The reasons for corruption in the military are complex, going beyond mere greed. Soldiers and police officers are aware that engaging in corruption places themselves and their colleagues in greater danger. Nevertheless, some take bribes out of economic necessity.

Zubair, the first lieutenant from Kunduz, is surprisingly candid about his reasons for accepting bribes.

“Where I live, the big problem is living securely,” he says. “In order to support my family, to pay for electricity, to keep my house, I am forced to get extra money. The wages [for the Afghan National Army] are not enough. It’s hard for an honest person to stand on his own feet and provide for himself.”

Sadat of the ACD is sympathetic to this argument.

“If I get 50,000 [Afghani, AFN] a month, I will have no reason to engage in corruption,” he says. “If I get 10,000 [AFN], and I have to spend 15,000 on basic living, then I must engage in corruption. So when you have no economic systems, you will be forced to be corrupt for your family, for your daily life, for your house. The corruption systems will be gone when there is a good economic system.”

Stanikzai of the ACD relates the issue back to poor wages and lack of compensation, which force soldiers to find alternative sources of income.

“If I died, who would take care of my family? How would they eat? If we had a system in which, if you’re killed or hurt, the government will still help you, there won’t be any problems. Corruption would go away.”

In addition to economic pressures, there is pressure from above. When higher-ups in the government and security services lean on those below them, it creates a domino effect in which victims must themselves turn to corruption.

“Say you want something, but your superior asks for 10,000 [AFN],” says Capt. Mohammad Nafir Gholami, of the ABP in Helmand Province, a stronghold for the insurgency.  “It forces you to engage in corruption. If I pay 10,000, then I have to find 10,000.”

“Corruption will only go away when we eradicate it from the top,” he says.  

Dawlatzai agrees: “Corruption is a problem everywhere, not just the army. It will go away when the top leaders are clean.”

Afghanistan is ranked 169th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. In opinion surveys, Afghans consistently identify corruption as one of the biggest challenges facing the country, along with insecurity and unemployment.

***

Afghanistan’s border problems are over 100 years in the making. The country initially served as a buffer zone between Britain and Russia’s colonial holdings in South and Central Asia. In 1893, British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand and the Afghan emir signed a one-page document establishing a border between Afghanistan and British India, which Pakistan inherited after the 1947 partition. As is so often the case with borders conceived in European offices, the Durand Line failed to take local factors into account.

“There were people living in the region for a long time, but they drew a line right through them,” says Gholami, who polices the Afghanistan-Pakistan border from Helmand Province.

The Durand Line cut through Pashtun tribal areas to the north and Balochistan to the south, politically dividing members of these ethnic groups. As a result, there remains heavy traffic across the border to this day, a fact that militants exploit.

“There are families with relatives on the other side of the border,” says Gholami. “They are on the Afghanistan side, their families are on the Pakistan side. That makes it tough for us… The border is open, [so] the Taliban come and go. Without visas, without passports. With weapons, with supplies. It’s no problem for them.”

The border remains a source of friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The countries periodically engage in diplomatic spats and armed clashes, complicating cross-border policing efforts. But it is Pakistan’s illicit support for the Taliban that most threatens the peace.

“The biggest problem we have is with Pakistan,” says Stanikzai. “… [A]ll the terrorism in Afghanistan is supported by Pakistan. The Taliban is nurtured by Pakistan and gets safe haven across the border.”

Maj. Ridi Gul Wahdat of the ABP is based in Paktia province, which shares a border with Pakistan. According to Wahdat, Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan is “the biggest challenge.”

“Pakistan works with the enemy. They work with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, all the terrorist groups. They let them come and go because they want to keep Afghanistan weak,” he says.

Stanikzai sees Pakistan’s motivations as two-fold. First, “Pakistan supports the Taliban so that we will retreat from the border.” Second, “Pakistan’s biggest fear is the relationship between Afghanistan and India. Pakistan and India are enemies. [Pakistan] worries that Afghanistan and India will become close.”

A recent Pentagon report identified Pakistan as the most influential external actor affecting Afghanistan’s stability. According to the report, elements of Pakistan’s security service allow the Taliban and Haqqani Network to “to operate in and from Pakistan.”

But Pakistan is not the only neighbor with a presence in Afghanistan.

“With Iran, we have a dispute over the dams in Helmand,” says Gholami. “Iran doesn’t want these to be built. They don’t want the water that comes from Afghanistan to be blocked.”

What happens if Afghanistan builds the dams?

“If we build it, they’ll fight us… They support the Taliban. They give them weapons, just like Pakistan. The best tool for Iran is the Taliban.”

Reports suggest that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has provided weapons and financial aid to militants in Afghanistan’s western provinces. In addition to seeking concessions from the Afghan government, Iran hopes to undercut the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghans I spoke to also point a finger at their Central Asian neighbors. Some 30 percent of Afghan opiates pass through Central Asia, and the Tajik government extracts billions of dollars from smugglers in return for looking the other way. Afghanistan is also a major destination for Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek militants, with Central Asian governments either unable or unwilling to stem the flow.  

Caught between the machinations of their neighbors, it is easy for Afghans feel that their fate is out of their hands.

“Do you know the game buzkashi?” asks Zubair.

Buzkashi, sometimes referred to as “Dead Goat Polo,” is a contact sport popular in Afghanistan and Central Asia in which teams of men on horseback compete to throw a goat carcass into a hole in the ground.

“Afghanistan is the goat.”

***

In June, the Trump administration announced that it would send an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan to help train the ANA. The new troops would join 8,400 U.S. soldiers already stationed there.

In his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis faced criticism from Arizona Senator John McCain regarding the administration’s lack of strategy to accompany this surge. Mattis acknowledged that the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan had entered a “strategy-free time” but promised to produce a comprehensive South Asia plan by mid-July. To date, however, the Trump administration has not released its strategy, reportedly because President Donald Trump is reluctant to sign off on it. It is unclear how the U.S. plans to address issues such as under-resourcing, corruption, and foreign meddling.

The absence of a comprehensive plan has failed to inspire confidence among the Afghans I spoke to. Many expressed frustration with what they perceive as American disinterest in promoting economic and governance reforms or seriously confronting Afghanistan’s neighbors.

“The American government wants to work only on the security forces, instead of thinking about the economics of the border regions,” says Sadat. “The Americans’ priority is to improve the Afghanistan military, and economics is secondary… [But] economics and security are inseparable.”

 “America could in one day wipe all the terrorists from Pakistan,” says Stanikzai. “Why doesn’t it?”

With the Taliban ascendant and Afghanistan facing one of its most violent summers in years, members of the ABP have few illusions about the challenge they face.

“The situation is getting worse,” says Muradi. “Daesh [Islamic State] is growing, the Taliban is growing… It’s getting worse every day.”

For Zubair, however, there is reason for optimism.  

“Yes, the Taliban’s territory is growing,” he says. “But now people understand what they stand for. Young people have opened their eyes. Before young people didn’t have literacy. Anyone could trick them. But now literacy is growing, they’re going to university, they’re seeing the world. Now the Taliban is less able to control the population.”

We are sitting on a bench in the courtyard of the OSCE Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe. The other trainees are drinking tea and chatting under the shade of a tree. It is a strangely idyllic scene considering the work they will soon return to. I ask Zubair if he really thinks the war can be won.

“Us Muslims are never without hope,” he says. “We always have hope. To the last moment of existence, even if we face great danger, we never let go of our hope.”

***

Names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals who discussed sensitive topics and work in dangerous areas.

Bardia Rahmani is a graduate student at Columbia University, where he focuses on civil wars and post-conflict reconciliation.

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