NURISTAN, Afghanistan -- For Afghan police, fending off the Taliban is only half the battle. The much-maligned local and national police forces are also fighting to win hearts and minds and to shed their reputations for thuggery.
That mission took yet another hit this week when a group of Afghan National Police (ANP) officers allegedly abducted a female nurse in Nuristan Province, a remote and volatile region along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan.
Ten ANP officers allegedly stormed a local health clinic in the province's Want district in the early hours of February 17 and whisked Zubaida (who goes by one name) away in front of her colleagues. Hours later, the nurse was rescued by a group of armed villagers and a second group of ANP officers following a brief shoot-out.
No one was killed in the gunfight. But four of the officers allegedly involved in the abduction have been arrested. Police are still looking for the other six officers.
The incident has once again put the spotlight on the country's police forces, which have come under criticism amid reports of extortion and petty harassment of villagers but also of human rights abuses --including rape, arbitrary detentions, and forcible land grabs.
Rahmatullah Rahmat, district governor of Want, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Zubaida did not sustain any injuries and was now under police protection. "She was not raped," he added.
Rahmat was referring to allegations made by some locals, who provided no support for their claims, that Zubaida was sexually assaulted by her abductors. Rape is a taboo topic in Afghanistan, where victims have been slain by their own families in so-called "honor killings." Even being in the company of strange men can be considered dishonorable in Afghanistan.
Militias For Hire?
Locals have also suggested that the 10 officers were acting on the order of a former district police chief, Shamsullah, who also only goes by one name. The ex-police chief, locals told RFE/RL, had proposed to Zubaida several times but she refused to marry him. Some locals believe Shamsullah wanted the officers to punish and dishonor her for refusing him.
Maulavi Zabiullah, a local resident, says that instead of protecting and serving the people, Afghan police are fuelling lawlessness and spreading fear. "We are all Muslims and Afghans so we should trust the police," he says. "But when the police, who are meant to provide security, actually destabilize the community then we must express our discontent."
The ANP currently numbers around 157,000 officers. It fights alongside the controversial Afghan Local Police (ALP), a 13,000-strong force that is divided into some 80 units across Afghanistan. ALP units are government-sponsored militias intended to provide security in remote villages across rural Afghanistan where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest.
But there have been long-held fears that the ALP units are being used by local strongmen as independent militias.
A United Nations opinion survey from 2012 showed that eight in 10 Afghans distrusted the ANP and ALP forces. The UN report said corruption and excessive use of force remained a significant concern among Afghans.
Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari in Nuristan