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Following on from the last post, there are some people in Afghanistan who do wind up moving even though they’re aren’t nomads. Well, aside from politicians moving to Kabul when they get elected, but they’re rather fond of that so they don’t count. The Afghan Police.

Unlike in the U.S., most of the Afghan Police forces are not local units, but are national and so can get moved around a lot. For an 18 year old Afghan who’s most likely illiterate or barely so–and frankly, I’m pretty sure some of those kids were younger than 18–moving away from the protected and certain environment of his village is a big deal.

We think nothing of moving out once we’re 18. For Afghans, it’s an unexpected way of life and after the initial excitement wears off, largely unappealing. They’re only allowed to go home once every few months. Families don’t move along to the place of assignment, so the older ones with wives and kids of their own are out of luck. The job is already dangerous and not being able to see your loved ones for long periods of time makes it even harder. Ask any deployed American, though at least we get the luxury of not being deployed full-time for 11 years. (I know, “it’s their country.” “But who started the war?” “But who let bin Laden in?” “But who let the Taliban come to power?” But, but, but. The whys are less important than the reality people have to live through.)

Being a policeman or soldier is at least a relatively steady paycheck, though. And sometimes police do get assigned to their home district. But there are a load of complications that can come up in either situation, making it very difficult to tell if its a good idea to keep these guys local or to move them away.

1) Not-local: Language issues. There are two major languages in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. While working in some rural areas of Paktika where everyone speaks Pashto, our partner police unit had only Dari speakers. The police could not talk to the people they were supposed to be policing unless they used one of our interpreters.

2) Local: Investment. When you’re from an area and you know all the people who live there, you care about it. You will work harder to keep people safe because they’re your people. Plus, when you’re from an area, you know when someone new shows up and starts making trouble because everyone knows everyone.

3) Local: Danger. When you’re from an area and you’re committed to working hard to keep it safe, one way to discourage you from being over-eager is to threaten your family. Killing bystanders is something insurgents do sometimes. How effective will you be at stamping out violence if doing so means risking the lives of your loved ones?

4) Local: Corruption. If the people you’re policing are your own people, you may be inclined to turn a blind eye when they do something wrong, especially since your (Afghan) culture values family over individual responsibility. Or you may abuse your position to get rid of family rivals (or, as happened in Paktia Province a few years ago, convince the dumb Americans that your rivals are insurgents and so have us capture them for you).

5) Not Local: CorruptionBut then again, if you’re local, you’re not likely to extort the local population or abuse them, as was a common complaint in Yahya Khel District. If you’re not from an area and it’s not your grandfather you’re extorting, who cares if you make a little money or take out some aggression on the locals? Who’re they going to tell?

6) Not Local: Voting. During the 2010 elections, I spoke to some police (and Afghan soldiers) stationed away from home about how they vote. They told me they couldn’t because they were away from home. Funny thing about Afghanistan. No postal service. Hard to do a mail-in vote without one. At best, they got someone in their families to do it for them.

So, yes, a lot of complications about whether to keep Afghan Police local or not. In my mind, it’s always worth it to keep them local because that investment piece outweighs the others, but then as I once had a friend who worked with police in post-apartheid South Africa, in America we have a mythos about police. They’re our lawmen, the source of justice and security stemming from our wild west days. Other countries don’t have that to quite the same degree.

Most just revel in the paycheck. But some believe and do their job well. I met one youngish police officer who (in his own words) was famous for stopping violence and insurgents. And he did do a better job than most, but he and most of his guys were local. I asked if he wasn’t worried about his family coming under threat. He nodded.

“It is always a worry, my wife, my children. But as I long as I am alive, I promise, no one will ever be able to harm them.”

He stopped for a second, then shrugged fatalistically. “But if I die, they will probably be in trouble.”

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