Progress in challenging circumstances - Interview with the Head of Mission of EUPOL Afghanistan Ms. Pia Stjernvall

Kabul, December 2016. The European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL Afghanistan) completes its mandate on 31 December 2016. The civilian mission, which has been conducted under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), has since 2007 worked in partnership with the Afghan Government in developing a civilian police service that operates within the framework of the rule of law and human rights. Head of Mission Ms. Pia Stjernvall reflects on the achievements of the mission.

If you look back over the years, how has the mission achieved its objectives?

I feel that we have done excellent work despite the very complex and challenging environment that we have been faced with – with Afghan police officers having to fight the insurgency and the many casualties they suffer on a daily basis. We could have done even better had we had a more favourable security setting.

EUPOL has positively influenced attitudes to civilian policing. We have seen progress in the development of a police service that operates within the framework of the rule of law and human rights. There is a recognition that community policing enables building trust and confidence in the police. I am happy to say that we delivered on almost 100% of our operations plan with regard to the EUPOL mandate for the past two years. Afghans themselves are capable of taking things forward from this point on if only they have the political will – not least because the European Union has prioritised sustainability through the establishment of training institutions – the Afghan Police Staff College and the Crime Management College.

Any particular success stories you are especially proud of?

I am really proud of the impetus we have helped generate when it comes to civilian policing in Afghanistan; the police are voicing their right to do police work instead of fighting the insurgency and the political leadership understands that fighting is not the only solution to bringing stability to Afghanistan. The police force is increasingly being seen as having a vital role to play in moving towards a peaceful society.

We have also had a key role in championing the role of females in the Afghan National Police (ANP) force. The number of female police officers was estimated to be around 170 prior to EUPOL’s establishment. Today, there are over 2 800 female officers. But this is not simply a story about numbers. Female officers speak for themselves today; they are leading the charge in advocating for recruiting qualified women; they are increasingly carrying out substantive police duties such as crime scene investigations, house searches and recording of evidence – roles which would have been inconceivable for females over a decade ago. On an institutional level, attitudes toward females in the ANP have changed for the better.

The mission conducted a number of specific actions to address gender issues. What was the idea and what were the outcomes?

Afghanistan being a very gender-segregated society, it is hard to achieve any progress if you do not address gender issues. By promoting female policing, we have contributed to female participation and integration in the police force.

We have assisted the Afghan Human Rights Independent Commission in creating the Office of the Police Ombudsman and were also involved in the formation of police councils where female officers can support each other. Significantly, we were the first organisation to bring up the discussion on police work with regard to the issue of the dancing boys “bacha bazi” – a practice stemming from an old tradition in Afghanistan in which teenage boys are made to dress like girls and dance, performing female gestures – which renders young boys vulnerable to child prostitution and sexual slavery.

Furthermore, gender inclusion and human rights training have been incorporated into police training curricula, as has relevant policy development. A media campaign we funded to promote the Code of Conduct of the Afghan National Police particularly stands out in this area. In addition, training for mission staff to raise their awareness on gender issues is not to be underestimated, especially when recruiting staff to missions such as this – something for member states to take into account.

Communication with local and EU audiences has been very important for you. Based on your experience as Head of Mission, can you share some of the lessons learnt with us on how best to communicate as a Head of EU Mission?

You cannot do anything without personal contacts in Afghanistan. You could do everything right with regard to websites and social media but will get nowhere without contacts. Once you succeed in acquiring a solid network of contacts, you can do a lot of things together.

Advertising campaigns have helped us extend our audience on social media platforms such as Facebook. We found that communication through photos and video is more effective in the Afghan context and we have notably received continuous feedback from our Afghan partners in our day-to-day communication. To avoid cultural missteps, it is important to confer with national colleagues in checking messages – Afghans themselves will tell you that certain campaigns by some international organisations are sometimes insensitive to such matters.

Moreover, cooperation with the European Union Delegation and the Office of the European Union Special Representative in Afghanistan has been invaluable. It is also worth pointing out that symbiosis between the Head of Mission’s office, the press and public information team and the mission’s political adviser has been crucial.

Any final words on your work in Afghanistan?

The European Union has the resources – money and knowledgeable personnel with different backgrounds and diverse perspectives – to make a real difference. Efforts need to be sustained in future to continue with police reform. As Civilian Operations Commander Kenneth Deane put it during EUPOL’s closure ceremony in November: “This is the end of a chapter, not the end of the book.”

Missions such as ours have a huge potential to impact change. The progress that EUPOL has helped achieve in a complex operating environment – contested by a determined insurgency – is testament to this. We have contributed to providing a solid foundation for a civilian and rule of law-oriented professional police service which is increasingly becoming accountable to the people of Afghanistan.