From late 2001 to 2007, I was a frontline civilian — one of thousands of people serving in areas of instability, crisis and conflict in a non-military role. I served as the U.S. Department of State program manager for the Afghanistan National Police Program. It’s hard, quite frankly, to recall positive moments from that period. Professionally and personally, it was probably the most difficult time of my life. Long hours, frequent travel to a war zone, and unending pressure to effect positive change in what seemed an impossible situation will all take a toll on the body, heart and soul.
In an environment where uncertainty, instability, and violence challenge every attempt to effect change, victories can be few and far between. Failing taught me valuable lessons, but also helped me to appreciate the wins. This is the story of one of those small, but vitally important, successes.
In late 2005, during one of my regular program visits, I learned about a new effort to create a domestic violence unit in Kabul. Two U.S. police mentors (both female civilian American law enforcement officers), along with United Nations staff members, had successfully lobbied the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI) to authorize the idea of a unit that would enable police to respond to violence against women, family violence, children at risk and kidnappings.
This project — eventually known as the Family Response Unit (FRU) — started with just one small prefabricated office building provided by the UN (known as a container) attached to the Kabul District 10 Police Station. At the time, the unit consisted of 12 police personnel, of which only four were female. As of early 2007, nearly 20 cases had been reported and processed by the unit, and U.S. advisors were playing a mentoring role to the Afghan police staff.
When I asked whether there was anything I could do to support the effort, the appraisal was optimistic — but with a catch. I was told that assessments of 17 other police stations throughout the country had already been conducted, and coordination with the MOI was underway. All they needed was funding for more American civilian police advisors to serve as mentors to these new units.
I returned home to the United States re-energized for this purpose. The situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, but here was one thing — one little thing — that could make a positive difference. After many months working to convince a broad audience across the Department of State and the Department of Defense that a small project focused on domestic violence would not only be successful but ought to be a priority in the midst of the rapidly declining security situation, I finally managed to secure additional funding for the project.
Since the Family Response Unit was first envisioned, the number of women serving on the Afghan police force has grown from less than 200 to nearly 2,000. The number of FRUs has grown from just one to nearly 200 — and where FRUs have been established with majority female staff, women are more likely to file complaints. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, “in the absence of the FRUs or visible women police officers, women almost never approach police stations willingly….”
One could argue that the impact of this project was minimal. No one — least of all me — suffers illusions about the state of security in Afghanistan. However, this program, which started with 12 police personnel in a single UN container, has grown to be a fundamental component of a larger mission to provide access to legal rights and justice for Afghan women. And, without conflict and the resulting intervention and expertise of trained civilian law enforcement officers, this project would have never gotten off the ground.
Therein was the lesson learned that I now try to let guide everything that I do: in times of conflict and instability, the small wins are the sustainable wins. This is something that civilian program managers, who typically work with fewer resources than their military counterparts, are in a unique position to embrace. Efforts to address even the most individual-level problems are the building blocks that aid in ameliorating uncertainty and instability in conflict zones.
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