There have been so many police chiefs in the district of Sholgara in recent years that the people who live in this granitoid bowl of smooth mountains tapering toward the Balkh river valley in a mellow polychrome of fields have forgotten to count them. All that anyone can tell you is that Captain Ghawsuddin Tufal has been chief of Sholgara police for five months.

Who knows how long he will last?

The Taliban is not known to operate in Sholgara, but someone claiming to be a member of the Islamist militia has already called his cell phone twice to threaten to kill him if he doesn’t quit. To protect a population of 100,000 he has a police force of 45 men. And three cars. And a sole police station on the edge of downtown Sholgara: a gravel-strewn compound suffocating in the sun where the men, wrapped in impressive bandoliers of 7.62 rounds, stand and squat along low walls all day, swatting at flies, while the chief chain-smokes in his tiny office.

The couches that clutter the room exhale puffs of dust every now and then, as though the captain’s lungs and the furniture’s upholstery are somehow connected.

Has he mentioned — he inquires between drags — that he receives absolutely no money to pay for gas for the police cars? When someone calls the cops, he pays out of his own pocket. Some villages are 30 miles away from the police station. Captain Tufal’s monthly paycheck is $400; a gallon of gas costs about $3.60.

The 120 villages in his charge are a dizzying kaleidoscope of ethnicities, political alliances, family and village feuds so old that the sides cannot quite remember how they started. There is a lot of bad blood here; there is a lot of spilled blood. In the last three decades, everyone has fought everyone in Sholgara: The mujaheddin fought the Soviets; the Tajiks fought the Uzbeks; the Hazaras fought the Pashtuns; the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance; various Northern Alliance warlords fought each other.

The fighting continues today: A few months ago, in the riverside village of Siaub, one former anti-Taliban warlord killed another. Provincial police drove down from Mazar-e-Sharif to arrest him; five days later, the prosecutors set him free.

“Let’s put it this way: He has powerful supporters,” Captain Tufal says, tweezing another cheap Korean cigarette out of the pack. “If I were to arrest him, I wouldn’t last a day. This is Afghanistan, not America.”

The people of Sholgara don’t call the cops very often. Once they called Captain Tufal when they found a cache of rocket-propelled grenades hidden under some crumbs of dry clay by an old T-54 tank that sits upside-down on the unpaved main road, the words “People of Sholgara, Vote for Abdullah!” scrawled in black spray paint across its corroded hull.

Another time, some men called when they stumbled upon four 122-millimeter rounds wired together to form a powerful, remote-controlled roadside bomb, farther south on the same road. The captain doesn’t know who put the explosives there: maybe a warlord trying to kill a rival, or a villager seeking revenge for some century-old offense.

Generally, though, people here don’t look to police for security. Anyone here will tell you: They don’t trust the police. And why should they? En route from Sholgara to Mazar-e-Sharif today I watch a policeman at a checkpoint demand a bribe from a pickup truck with a camel and some burlap sacks tied to the bed with rope.

“Too little,” the officer tells a careworn Uzbek driver offering, through a rolled-down cab window, a soiled, sweat-drenched green bank note: 10 Afghanis, or about 22 cents. A line forms. Men stuck behind the camel truck relax the grip of their steering wheels and rummage in their pockets for bills.

At this checkpoint, in the middle of a road that could at any moment be besieged by bandits, by Taliban fighters, by kidnapping gangs, Afghanistan’s centralized government doesn’t offer protection to these men. Instead, the men require protection from it. No wonder they cling to the traditional feudal semi-anarchy of fortified villages, and erect the thick walls of mud and straw of their family compounds patiently, by hand. They know: In the end, these will be the only walls that will matter.

Less than a mile away from the Sholgara police station, a small, 60-year-old castle presides over 15 acres of farmland that belong to two brothers. The outer walls are painted ocher; at first, I think the two towers and the primitive battlements are a stylization.

No, no, the owners assure me, and show me the four-foot-thick walls, and the castellations that provide a 360-degree view of the valley. Our grandfather built this, for fighting. For defending ourselves so that our houses are not looted and our women are not raped. This is real, it can be used very efficiently, you see?

From whom are you defending yourselves? I ask.

The farmers study me for a moment, trying to understand whether I am being deliberately obtuse.

Then, one of the men shrugs, and they say, in unison:


This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

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Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.