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Building bridges in Afghanistan

Regional cooperation and border management for peace and development

Story by United Nations Development Programme September 8th, 2016

Ten years ago there were just three border crossing points between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Today there are six bridges, and there are plans to construct a seventh.

These critical connections have been established through a partnership between Afghanistan, the European Union and UNDP. From its headquarters in Tajikistan, the Border Management Northern Afghanistan (BOMNAF) project has been working for nearly a decade to build the physical and social infrastructure, for a strong and peaceful Afghanistan.

© Freya Morales /UNDP
A border crossing point at Nusai, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP

The project's main goal is to improve cross-border cooperation, to reduce crime and increase legal trade and travel along Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These efforts will contribute to mutual trust, regional development, conflict prevention and resolution. The long-term goal is to strengthen human security as well as to indirectly enhance and expand economic development on both sides of the border.

"Without appropriate infrastructure in place for the Afghan Border Police and Afghan Customs Officers to fulfil their duties, cross-border bridges that are built on the northern border of Afghanistan cannot be functional and therefore can't serve their purpose, to assist positive development in local and regional communities." - William Lawrence, EU BOMNAF project manager
An Afghan Border Police officer during a first aid training in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP

Less crime, more trade

BOMNAF builds infrastructure and facilities and provides equipment and training to the Afghan Border Police and Customs Department working at border-crossing points and outposts in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. The security situation here has been deteriorating in recent years.

BOMNAF team members conduct frequent field trips to the Afghan border to engage directly with Afghan Border Police, often working in remote mountainous areas. The trip can take more than three days, because of the poor condition of the roads that are clinging to the mountain sides.

But the members of the BOMNAF team believe it is worth the time and effort. The field visits provide an opportunity to build relationships with border officers and learn about their working environment and challenges, essential for the project's success.

Aerial view of  the River Pyanj, which forms a 1,300 km natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan © Freya Morales /UNDP

This is a US$10 million project, and it plays a major role in improving the capacity of the Afghan Border Police and Customs Department to manage the border posts, increase security, foster regional cooperation and open cross-border markets along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.

Learning skills, sharing experiences

An important part of the project's work is to enhance the Afghan Border Police officers' skills in several crucial areas such as: border management, first aid, disaster management, search and rescue, survival swimming, land navigation and map reading, training, all-terrain vehicle maintenance and operation, information and communications technology, etc.

Training sessions have also been organized in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. On these occasions, Afghan officers are invited, along with experts and trainers from different fields, to spend an intense week attending seminars and workshops. Not only do officers and commanders gain useful knowledge, they also get a chance to meet and share experiences with colleagues from other provinces.

First aid training at the northern headquarters of the Afghan Border Police in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP
A workshop on navigation and map reading is held in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Expert Philip Eliason discusses natural disaster response with an Afghan Border Police officer. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Many of the Afghan Border Police officers based at the Nusai border had never used a computer before this IT course. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Navigation and map reading course for the Afghan Border Police based in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Border officers are trained in using an endoscope in an automobile search workshop organized by BOMNAF in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
First aid training for Afghan Border Police officers during a week-long capacity-building course held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
(Frame grab) Afghan Border Police officers during an IT training at the border crossing point in Nusai, Afghanistan © Freya Morales /UNDP
Afghan Border Police officer searches car for hidden contraband in an automobile search workshop organized by BOMNAF. © Freya Morales /UNDP


Another way that the project supports the Afghan Border Police and Customs Department is by providing them with equipment. Besides the furniture and fittings for their offices and barracks, the border guards receive very specialized technical equipment. Endoscopes to search for hidden contraband in cars, computers, printers and passport readers are all provided along with training in their proper use and maintenance.

By providing the border crossing posts and border outposts with Polaris 4x4 Quad Bikes, the project also ensures that officers can move around in the rough mountainous terrain. Other critical equipment includes: drug testing kits, digital cameras, field telephones, navigation equipment, binoculars, helmets, computer laptops and solar ovens.

New Polaris ATV vehicles are stored before being transported to border posts in northern Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP
An Afghan border guard poses in one of the barracks constructed by the BOMNAF project. © Freya Morales /UNDP
An Afghan customs office at the Eshkashem border crossing point
A member of the BOMNAF team tries out some of the new equipment that will be handed over to the Afghan Border police. © BOMNAF archives
Afghan Border Police officers learn how to use their new equipment in Mazar - Sharif, Afghanistan. © Freya Morales /UNDP
A Polaris 4x4 helmet rests on a drug testing kit. Both are key tools for Afghan Customs officers. © BOMNAF archive image.


In order to improve the working and living conditions of the Afghan Border Police and other agencies' officers stationed on the northern borders of Afghanistan, BOMNAF works to improve infrastructure by building new facilities, upgrading and renovating existing buildings.

EU-BOMNAF team on the border bridge in Langar to look at the terrain where the new Afghan border post will be built © Freya Morales /UNDP

Taking into account lessons learned from previous projects, BOMNAF builds modern, low maintenance infrastructure, with ecologically-appropriate design and environmentally sound materials. No more diesel generators. No more central heating or boiler rooms, no more electric air conditioning.

Aerial view of  the bridge joining BOMNAF’s border crossing point at Djomarji-bolo (left) to Tajik border crossing  (right).© Freya Morales

Trees are planted to provide natural shade and cooler areas for summertime meetings. Heating is provided by multi-fuel stoves with the option of local fuel from specifically planted trees.

It is important that the Afghans can rely on these simple solutions, and alternative energy sources such as solar panels. The geographic isolation of the border posts, as well as the harsh weather and occasional landslides, can block the roads for days, making it difficult for supplies and technicians to reach them

Lugad (Tajikistan) - Children watch as heavy machines work to repair a road and bridge that were washed away. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Lugad (Tajikistan) - View of the mountain valley filled with tonnes of mud that washed away the road and bridge. © Freya Morales /UNDP
Lugad (Tajikistan) - Villagers and travelers are stuck in the town until the road and bridge are repaired. (July 2015) © Freya Morales /UNDP

Cooperation is key

Regional cooperation is the overarching theme. BOMNAF seeks to strengthen cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries by enhancing communication and coordination. An important way to achieve this is by bringing the Afghan Border Police closer to their colleagues in Central Asia so they can share best practices and learn from each other's experiences.

Each year the project organizes meetings and conferences between agencies from Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to foster regional partnerships and promote joint activities and information sharing. By working together and coordinating their actions, the border officers are building a bridge toward a more stable and prosperous future for the entire region.

Afghan border police meet with their Uzbek counterparts to share experiences and learn from each other. © Freya Morales / UNDP

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Footnote: Text, photos and video by Freya Morales/UNDP.