Soldiers or Police? A Report From Afghanistan

When I sent my senior colleagues the first draft of a field research report from the Nimruz Province in Afghanistan, they responded with an interesting point I wouldn’t have noticed myself: Throughout the 35 page report, I referred to policemen/women as soldiers.

Story by: Ajmal Nimruzi



It wasn’t a mistake. I wrote what I had heard. Most of my police interviewees interchangeably used policemen/women and soldier. In Nimruz, where the dominant day-to-day language is Persian/Dari, the word sarbaz is used to refer to either police or an army soldier. When I was translating the interview from Dari to English, I, just as my fellow Nimruzis, continued to make the same “mistake”.

I have spent half my life in actual violent conflict, and I can tell that using police and soldier interchangeably is a not a “big deal”. But to an audience like my European colleagues it was clearly an interesting point. This made me curious as to the reasons why this term is used, and why it persists.  One reason I have come up with is based on the idea that, in almost all epochs of Afghan history police has been used and acted as an agent of the state to enforce the new and most-of-the-time unpopular regime changes. The police have internalized this as their main character and the contrast between law and order-oriented police and a soldier has faded.

Why does the use of the term soldier still persists?  In the past few years, with the worsening security situation, the police more than the army have been involved in fighting terrorism. This role is reinforced by the fact that the Afghan insurgency is not any more confined to the remote villages of the Helmand or Kunduz provinces; insurgency has expanded well into the heart of the cities, and here, police are on the frontline.

Beside its routine law and order schedule, this urban warfare means there is an additional big burden on the shoulders of police. Urban warfare means that even in the middle of the city there are barricades and fences. Urban warfare means that police stations are well fortified and thus inaccessible. They are prime targets. I have to say one would face more inconveniences entering a police station than a military base. And so, why would I or any other Afghan have the conscious ability to differ between the police and soldiers?

When I was growing up in the Nimruz province, physical security was never something I considered a priority. Even when the province fell to the Taliban and back to the Mujahedeen, I never thought about the security. The reason behind my “coolness” may have been my unconscious knowledge of the province’s geopolitics. Nimruz is the fifth largest province of Afghanistan, but it has the lowest population density. In a word, it’s a big piece of land and very few people living in it. Large swaths of barren desert and quicksand have created a natural buffer zone between Nimruz population centers and the Pakistan border as well as to the two conflict-ridden provinces of Farah and Helmand. Nimruz has for all those years of civil conflict remained “untapped”.

But, unfortunately, in the world of ever-changing terrorist tactics, being a barren, faraway land does not guarantee security. Nimruz in the last two to three years has faced a new security threat. An alarming one. Allegedly the Taliban have come up with a “kill list”. Allegedly the name of every government employee is on the list. In front of their name is a digit. This digit imply the amount of money one would receive if one killed the person in front of the digit. Whatever the strategy, the tactic is rather innovative. The “kill list” is given to paid hitmen who use motorbikes as the main means of hit-and-run terror. This means if you are a low ranking officer in an important government office, or indeed the governor himself, you are in the danger zone.

In the short period of time I was in Nimruz, at least two people were shot at. The first person was somewhat lucky. Though he only received a bullet, he was permanently injured. The second person, a young lawyer, was killed on the spot. The shooter was caught by the people in the area. The hitman later confessed that he had been promised money in return for the shootings and was told by the Taliban to start with his friends and relatives. Later the police found out that the victim and the murderer were actually childhood friends.

In the center of Zaranj, the capital city of Nimruz, pillion riding has been banned. It means that the police don’t trust people. Especially those who pillion ride. In this kind of psychological warfare the line between friends and enemies becomes so thin that you lose trust in your common sense.

And in this kind of scenario, when it comes to taking measures, extra militarization and fortification are the first things that come to mind. Ban pillion riding, add barricades, and then you are fine. But unfortunately these measures have not worked as intended. The killings have not stopped; people are still murdered on the streets of the city.

On the outskirt of the same city something else is developing. The people of the Khaja Karim village near Zaranj city have decided to react to increasing insecurity with their own methods. They have established a local Shura, or council. It consists of representatives of several households in the village who have come together to establish a platform where security concerns are discussed and decisions are made based on consultative sessions. One of their main decisions to fight insecurity and criminal activities is establishing a neighborhood watch that patrol the area during the night, with no firearms. The police have welcomed their move and promised quick action in case the Shura calls for help. Shura members as well as the police claimed peace and security have returned to the village since the creation of the Shura and neighborhood watch.

Khaja Karim might be a small dusty village in a remote province, but it tells us something about policing and security. Guns, bullets and batons have always been there, but it might be time to look deeper into the police toolkit and find other useful tools that the police can be equipped with; Community-based policing can be one such tool and perhaps, one day, we Afghans will start distinguishing, in our language, between police and soldiers.



About the author:

Ajmal Nimruzi holds a master degree from the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, India, on a thesis on corruption in Post-Conflict society. He is affiliated with the ICT4COP project as a researcher in Afghanistan.