Conducting Research with Afghan and Tajik Border Police in Dushanbe

Besides taking Farsi and Tajiki language classes in Dushanbe, I have also been working with EU Border Management in Northern Afghanistan (EU-BOMNAF). BOMNAF, a UNDP Tajikistan affiliate, works with Afghan and Tajik border police and customs officials to equip them with the skills to control their borders.

This July, BOMNAF hosted a two-week border security training course in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, inviting 15 members of the Afghan Border Police (ABP), a branch of the Afghan National Army, and five members of the Afghan Customs Department. The group was remarkably diverse. Participants included ethnic Tajiks, Pashtos, Uzbeks and Hazaras from provinces bordering Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. In addition to the Afghan officials, four female members of the Tajik national police attended.

The training itself consisted of daily workshops in both hard skills (such as body searches, risk profiling, and emergency first aid) and general topics (such as drug trafficking routes, human rights, and gender). My job was to monitor and evaluate (M&E) the training course by conducting surveys and Dari-language interviews with the participants. The experience was invaluable, and helped me improve my language skills, research abilities, and understanding of the region.

Right off the bat, I was anxious about conducting interviews in Dari. While I can speak and understand Farsi, I worried that differences in accent and terminology would sink my project. After my first interaction with the Afghans, I realized my fears had been overblown. Farsi and Dari are mutually intelligible, and the differences in accent proved more amusing than inhibiting. In fact, poking fun at accents turned out to be a great way to build rapport early on. However, speaking with Afghans from southern provinces took some getting used to, as they often used Pashto or archaic Persian words. For example, the Pashtun Dari-speakers referred to oil as teel instead of naft, and used the word serhat for border instead of marz.

As someone looking to perform academic field research, this was an exciting opportunity to jump headfirst into a self-directed research project. With few guidelines, I had the opportunity to design and implement an M&E program and produce a report for the UNDP making suggestions for future trainings. My big takeaway is that surveys are important; there is no replacement for face-to-face conversation. Respondents, especially those working in sensitive fields, can be cagey on written surveys. But if you have taken the time to build a relationship with them, they are surprisingly forthcoming in conversations and interviews. It also pays to be adaptable, to not stick too rigidly to carefully-worded interview questions. Oftentimes the questions one thinks are interesting may turn out to be dead ends, and a stray comment from an interviewee may open of a world of possibilities.

Working with BOMNAF also helped me expand my understanding of Afghan and Tajik security issues. While American policymakers tend to see the Afghan war through a security lens – largely debating proper troops levels or how to train and equip the ANA – the Afghan soldiers I spoke to consistently identified corruption and foreign meddling as their main concerns. Too often, the economic and diplomatic dimensions of the conflict get short shrift. One encouraging sign was that, despite the hand-wringing about ethnic divisions in the country, individuals who served together in the military seemed to discard their sectional, linguistic and ethnic markers, identifying as Afghans first.

In all, I was lucky to have been able to work at BOMNAF. It made me more confident in my career path, served as an excellent complement to my language learning in Tajikistan, and allowed me to build friendships with people I might never otherwise have met.

By: Bardia Rahmani

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2017

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