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On a tour of the Afghan-Pakistan border a couple years after the collapse of the Taliban government, Afghanistan’s minister of the interior was in for a rude awakening. A number of guards at one Afghan-controlled crossing, he learned, went home at the end of each workday to Pakistan. The minister shouldn’t have been surprised to have Pakistani citizens on his payroll for such a sensitive task. After all, the country never had a truly functioning national border police, and so the job of managing the frontier fell largely to local strongmen and warlords, who were not above hiring foreigners so long as they were local.
Today, Afghanistan has a hefty national border police funded by the international community. But despite their crisp uniforms and neat organizational charts, the Afghan Border Police are nowhere near ready to protect the country’s borders. And that may be a good thing.
Consumed with building a modern Afghan state from the inside out, the international community initially paid little attention to the situation along Afghanistan’s borders. The reasons were simple. Between 2001 and 2006, the country's frontier areas were enviously stable. International donors had the luxury of not worrying about security there and, in any case, took it for granted that neighboring countries would rise to the task. Iran’s government, for example, spent tens of millions of dollars paying the salaries of Afghan guards and refurbishing some border crossings in the name of neighborliness. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s authorities took a more creative approach, doling out food, gas, and clothing to unsavory insurgents on Afghanistan’s side to cajole them to move further away from the border.
By 2009, insurgents, traffickers, and bandits were making unfettered use of the country’s crossings, and the international community decided to double down and revamp the country’s border and customs police.No country wanted to take the lead in border management assistance, but donors such as the United States, Germany, and Italy were still interested in niche projects—they scattered random bits of equipment to border and customs officials, sponsored some training, and mostly gave contradictory advice to the ministry of interior on how to organize the border police.
It is thus no wonder that in a 2006 report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan noted that all was not well on Afghanistan’s periphery. The Afghan Border Police “lacks sufficient personnel, training, vehicles, fuel for vehicles, communications equipment, uniforms, weapons and other infrastructure,” it said. “Some border crossing points are no more than mud brick huts.” The same year, a post along the frontier with Pakistan ran out of ammunition during an insurgent attack resulting in the death of two border police. Such incidents were signs that the calm would not last. Violence along the border grew exponentially with each passing year.
TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
By 2009, insurgents, traffickers, and bandits were making unfettered use of the country’s crossings, and the international community decided to double down and revamp the country’s border and customs police. This time, the United States vowed to lead the effort despite pessimism among Afghan and international officials that the country’s borders could be controlled. As Afghanistan’s then Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak told me in 2009, “If the U.S. can’t do it with a flat border and all that money, how can we do it?”
Today, Afghanistan’s border control institutions appear entirely transformed. Afghanistan’s border police numbers have swelled to 23,900, nearly twice the number that international donors envisioned in 2004. Officials process goods and people at high-tech crossings into Pakistan, guards live in spacious air-conditioned barracks at the frontier with Tajikistan, and female guards check passports at some border crossings across the country thanks to the mainstreaming of women in the security forces. Most important, Afghanistan’s citizens have come to expect a more predictable experience when crossing borders, less subject to the whims and caprice of officials.
And yet this makeover is only skin deep. In the province of Farah, which is adjacent to Iran, well-armed drug convoys tear across the border, and Afghan guards are unable to stop them. Along much of the frontier with Pakistan, border police keep to the relative safety of guard stations and infrequently venture out to patrol for insurgents and smugglers. Badghis and Faryab, along the line demarcating Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, are in particularly poor shape as deserters leave behind dwindling numbers of guards. And following the recent deterioration of security in Kunduz, near the border with Tajikistan, insurgent groups have come closer and closer to the gleaming border barracks that American taxpayers paid for.
One way to see the failure is that border aid came too little, too late to confront Afghanistan’s security woes. But a more accurate analysis may be that the makeover was too much, too soon. Afghanistan received a bounty of border aid in a very short amount of time, aid that has given it institutions that are somehow both modern and ineffective. This allowed the country to jettison proven ways of managing borders that it used in the past.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
The local system was far from equitable or systematic. People and goods crossing the border were subject to different fees, restrictions, and waiting times. But for all its faults, the system got results.Historically, border control in Afghanistan was the purview of local and provincial authorities. Warlords and authorities in frontier areas set up their own modes of border control, collecting customs duties and policing stretches of frontier as they saw fit. Admittedly, provincial elites and warlords treated crossings like personal tollbooths. The levies and payments they took from people and goods moving across the borders propped up their political fortunes and shored up revenue that they used for local militia and pet projects. Not surprisingly, authorities in Kabul found it difficult to get provincial leaders to fork over customs revenues to the national government.
The local system was far from equitable or systematic. People and goods crossing the border were subject to different fees, restrictions, and waiting times. But for all its faults, the system got results. First, it led to better surveillance. Local border commanders and their recruits had access to more reliable intelligence and knew the security situation in the area better than do today’s border police, who are transferred in and out of unfamiliar areas by officials in Kabul. Second, it was flexible and innovative. Local commanders were more likely to cooperate with their counterparts across the line and devise ways to police the crossings. This was natural given the country’s geography—Afghanistan’s outlying regions had stronger links to the territories of neighboring states than to one another or to Kabul. Today’s border police and customs officials are heavily restrained by protocol designed in Kabul to reorient the country’s border areas away from neighboring states, a contravention of many decades of history.
Third, local systems are cheaper to maintain. Local border commanders and their recruits did not necessarily have to be housed away from home, and did not need the massive modern barracks constructed for the current border police, which have already become a costly maintenance headache.
The good news is that it is not too late for Afghanistan to get back to basics. Afghanistan’s border police is largely an institutional fiction—incompletely trained, unseasoned, and unsustainable. It’s not clear how the current government can manage a national border police, much less pay for it when the money that the United States has pledged for the Afghan National Security Forces runs out in 2017. Moreover, President Ashraf Ghani has inherited border and customs services whose choicest positions were auctioned off by his predecessor to the highest bidder or to those who delivered the most votes—not to those who promised the best security outcomes.
It’s time for Afghanistan to admit that it cannot police its borders from Kabul and to start an orderly devolution to local authorities. The toughest part of this will not be finding qualified locals; instead, it will likely be facing down opposition from international donors and Afghans who are already warning against “beseeching local warlords for military assistance to keep the peace.” Ghani has two years to do just that, but little time to lose.