A Language Student’s Perspective of EU-BOMNAF’s 18th Border Management Awareness Course

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By John W. Ellington

United Nations jeeps with blue license plates are a fairly common sight on Dushanbe’s streets. Both the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme use the city as a base for managing projects in rural Tajikistan, but Dushanbe is also a hub for several of the UN’s Afghanistan-related operations. Tajikistan’s capital is 260 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, and only 150 miles from Kunduz City. Kabul, on the other hand, is more than 200 miles from Kunduz province.

Last month, the European Union’s Border Management Northern Afghanistan (EU-BOMNAF) project invited three ERLP students to observe their eighteenth Border Management Awareness course. The UNDP administers two border management projects, funded by the EU and Japan. Other governments have also provided donations for individual projects. Since 2007, UNDP has built Border Crossing Points (BCP) and border outposts for the Afghan Border Police and has provided training to Afghan police officers working directly on the Tajik-Afghan border. Recently, EU-BOMNAF’s sister project, JICA-BMP, funded by Japan, has also become involved in regional economic integration measures, including renovation and support to cross-border markets in Badakhshan Province.

Between September 26th and October 6th, as part of EU-BOMNAF training, international experts from border security agencies in Denmark, Moldova, Tajikistan, and the United Kingdom conducted training workshops with twenty officers from the Afghan Border Police at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe. Students attended ten days of workshops covering a wide range of topics, including current trends in the international drug trade, first aid theory and practice, human rights of refugees, anti-corruption practices, counterterrorism techniques, and gender issues in border management. EU-BOMNAF provided professional simultaneous translation of English and Russian-language presentations into Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan.

As a master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I’ve read my fair share of journal articles and policy briefs arguing for and against foreign police or military training programs. Usually these were in relation to US Government initiatives, such as International Military Education and Training (IMET), the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), the Export Control and Related Border Security Program (XBS), or the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP). However, EU-BOMNAF’s border management awareness course was my first opportunity to watch professional police training in action. Each and every day, Afghan border guards face an array of challenges, from well-organized drug and human smuggling rings to cross-border terrorism. Last month’s EU-BOMNAF trainings were designed to provide participants with a mix of theoretical and practical tools to improve respect for human rights, ensure fair and compassionate treatment of refugees, face down corruption, and deliver emergency first aid in the field. Officers came from postings throughout northern Afghanistan, and each ERLP student had the opportunity to talk to them between classes about their experiences.

The border awareness course was also one of my first chances to practice my Dari language skills. I’m currently a Boren Fellow studying both Iranian Farsi and Afghan Dari through American Councils’ ERLP program in Dushanbe. Afghans pronounce Persian phonemes slightly differently from Iranians. “V” sounds become “W” sounds, and a “U” vowel may become a longer “O”. Afghans also use slightly different words and phrases in everyday speech. For instance, it took me almost an entire day to figure out that the Afghan officers were using the phrase ba khotare, or “owing to,” in lieu of choon keh, “because.”  

At a few junctures, reminders of Afghanistan’s tragic multi-decade war spilled into the classroom. Many of the attendees had arrived from recently contested provinces, including both Kunduz and Helmand. During the workshop, Taliban cadres briefly seized control of central Kunduz City. Two weeks later, insurgents ambushed and killed a group of more than 100 police officers outside Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.

Such devastating security incidents, seldom reported back home, render EU-BOMNAF’s work more important than ever. Facilitating legal cross-border trade, and supporting border markets built and maintained with EU and Japanese funds provides rural Afghans with opportunities outside poppy cultivation and reduces the appeal of insurgent groups. However, legal cross border trade can only outstrip narcotics smuggling if border police are well-versed in the human rights of the people they are sworn to protect and equipped with management skills necessary for supervising and coordinating their forces.

Since arriving here five months ago, I have become far more aware that the seemingly endless civil wars and violent unrest in Afghanistan isn’t simply about news headlines and American involvement; the situation involves countless thousands of Afghanistan’s rural poor, who suffer from the oppression created by violent men, allowed to act freely within a corrupt and unstable society. As well as reinforcement from US military power, Afghanistan needs our understanding and support for the people who live there and who believe in working for their own future. By becoming involved with EU-BOMNAF, I hope I have made at least a small contribution to that need.