Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

The Art of the Tracker: How to find a thief in Afghanistan

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon 9 min

The art of tracking footprints to find thieves, and even murderers, is well-known in Afghanistan, and particularly in southern Afghanistan and in the areas where Pashtun and Baluch tribes live on the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the Durand Line, the de facto international border, it can be a paid profession. Although trackers are in great demand in this region, on the Afghan side of the border, at least, the job also has its risks, as AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon discovered when he spoke to trackers, lawyers and victims of crime. 

Palzan Abdullah Jan Aka in front of a school near his home village in Killa Saifullah district. Photo: Muhammad Aslam Sulaimankhel

I can track footprints on soil and sand, but not on asphalted roads. If a robber steps onto an asphalted road I trace each side to find where his footsteps continue – but if he walked along it, I’ve lost him. From a footprint, I can determine the weight of the robber. And if two people were there, I can recognise the heavier one. For about twenty days after a robbery, I can read the footprints, unless they’ve been disturbed, by the wind or something else.

Walat Khan is a tracker – a palzan in Pashto – from Zheray district of Kandahar province. He is around 65 to 70 years old and has been a tracker for the last 25 years. “It’s a natural talent which God has granted to our family,” he said. His older brother was a tracker before him, and his nephew has now also started in the trade. On the other side of the Durand Line, Palzan Abdullah Jan* from Killa Saifullah district of Quetta, which neighbours Zabul province, has worked on both sides of the de-facto border, in Killa Saifullah, Zhob and Pishin districts of Quetta and in Kandahar province. He started tracking more than thirty years ago.

I’m able to track on the plains, but I’m happier in the hills and mountains where I can follow a thief very well. Because when he goes there, the stones slip or he steps on bushes, and I can see where he’s been. The only thing that creates problems for me and I’m ashamed of is when I go to the site of a robbery and used a vehicle or motorbike to escape. I can’t track the tyre marks because vehicles and motorbikes all travel the same. But if you look at the footprints of millions of humans, the footprint of each one will differ from all the others.

Each job, the men said, typically starts the same way. They will get called to the site of a robbery if the thief has left footprints. From the victim’s home or property, the tracker follows the footprints, typically accompanied by the victims and sometimes other people keen to see where they lead. When they lead to a house, the tracker tells the victim that he was robbed either by the owner of that house or a visitor. Then, the victim tells the home owner “Either show me how the footprints go on from your house, or you are the person who robbed me!” The suspected thief either accepts the charge or disputes it. If the latter, he may bring another tracker to follow the footprints on from his home. Sometimes, the crime is not robbery, but murder, and then they are following the footprints of a suspected murderer.

Following footprints is a well-known way throughout Afghanistan to try to catch a thief. In most places, however, it seems it is done by the victims of a robbery and their neighbours, often accompanied by local elders. In southern Afghanistan, however, and across the Durand Line, it is a paid profession. 

For Walat Khan, tracking is a family affair, but Abdullah Jan was appointed as an official tracker by the Pakistani government after it had given him some training. That was more than 30 years ago. 

It was a short course, about two months, but it made me aware, for example, that robbers sometimes change their shoes after leaving a robbery or sometimes after they’ve reached their destination. Everything else, I learned by myself.

However, Abdullah Jan said he never forgot the thief’s shoe trick. “Sometime back,” he said, “I was robbed of my power transformer. What the thief had done, he had tied a scarf [pato] behind one foot and used it to sweep away his footprints.” However, the thief had not wiped away every footprint, and when Abdullah Jan saw the same footprint three months later, he tracked the footprints down to a house where he found his stolen transformer. Unfortunately for the robber, he had chosen to steal from a man who had tracked down 2,000 thieves during his professional career: “If I see a footprint,” Abdullah Jan said, “I will always recognise it again, including if that thief carries out another robbery.” 

Both men have had long careers as trackers and find their skills remain in high demand. However, they have been treated very differently by society, law and the authorities. Kandahari Waltat Khan reports that tracking can be risky and recounted an incident to demonstrate the potential dangers.

… Once, someone had robbed the home of some powerful people. It was matter of reputation and humour for them. They asked my older brother to find the robber. This was during the government of the Taleban in the 1990s. My brother found the thief – he was a very close relative of the family which had been robbed. My brother pretended he didn’t know who the footprints belonged to. However, the victims pushed him and finally, my brother told them the robber was his close relative.

A month or two later, someone came to our house at night and shot and killed my brother. I tracked the murderer’s footprints and found him. It was the person whom my late brother had identified as the thief. But they were powerful people and we were unable to take our revenge on them. Mediators were brought in, and the matter was resolved.

Another interviewee, who was the victim of a robbery in Zurmat district of Paktia province, Muhammad Amin, also described the limits and risks of following the footprints of thieves. When thirty of his sheep were stolen one night, he said he brought a tracker in the very next morning. 

The tracker followed the thieves’ footprints to the house of a close relative. From there, the tracker said, the robbers had taken the sheep away using a tractor, and he was unable to follow it onwards. We held our relative and told him: “Either you are the thief or you should tell us how the trail leads away from your house!” We took him to our village and threatened him and he did confess that he had accompanied two other thieves to our house and stolen the sheep. He said that, after taking the sheep to his home, the thieves had brought the tractor and taken the sheep away and sold them – but had never given him his share of the money!

The two main thieves were powerful, said Amin, and his relative was afraid of them, so he had never made a claim against them.

Across the border, Abdullah Jan reported a very different situation. He said he had never faced such risks from robbers, possibly because he was government-appointed and the people understood that it backed him. Bothering him or threatening would have meant challenging the government. In Afghanistan, however, trackers are private citizens and work in an environment where recourse to guns is easy and impunity common. That difference also appears to affect whether customers pay up or not. 

Abdullah Jan, from the Pakistani side of the Durand Line said his clients usually pay up, at varying rates, but often generously – between 2,000 and 15,000 Pakistani rupees [9-66 USD], while Walat Khan from Kandahar said he was often not paid properly. Sometimes people said they would pay him, but either never did or paid him less than the amount they had promised. He recounted a recent example. A robbery had taken place in Sangin district of Helmand province and the provincial governor of neighbouring Kandahar had requested the police chief of Panjwayi district to send him to track the footprints of the thief.

A mixture of afghanis and Pakistani rupees, amounting to around 155,000 US dollars had been stolen from the house of a senior Taleban official, a high-ranking official in Kabul. The provincial governor of Kandahar had been told by Kabul to help the people whose house was robbed. I went with them and tracked down the robbers. I told this official that his two nephews on his brother’s side had stolen the money. He gave me some money, but not what he should have given me. His excuse was that “You didn’t find the money, only the robbers.” His nephews had confessed that the footprints belonged to them.

In some cases, the trackers said, they choose not to expose the robber, but try to resolve the issue in a way that neither the victim nor the robber is harmed. “Sometimes,” said Abdullah Jan “when the thief knows I’m going to track his footprints, he comes to my house with the stolen items and says: ‘Please return this to the owner and don’t tell them it was me who stole it.’” Abdullah Jan said he was also very careful if people’s honour would be threatened by the unveiling of a thief, or enmity stoked.

Some cases area matter of reputation and honour and when we’ve tracked down the thief, we don’t say: “We have found the sinner! because it would cause problems.” The people might kill each other. In such cases, even though I have recognised the footprints, I have not revealed who they belong to. I don’t want people to kill each other.

However, in serious cases like murder, Abdullah Jan said he never hides the identity of the culprit and, indeed, will stand up in court to testify against him. 

… There was a murder case and I went to track down the murderer. I found him and then the case came to the police post and was proved and the murderer confessed to have killed the man. My tracking was accepted by the court. 

When I have to find a thief, many of them confess to carrying out the robbery, but those who don’t, I will stand as witness in the court and swear on oath that they have stolen that particular thing.

The legal validity of tracking 

Abdullah Jan reported being called on by the courts to testify even though two lawyers, one in Quetta and one in Peshawar, told AAN that traditional tracking is not accepted in Pakistani law or by the Pakistani courts. However, the lawyer in Quetta, who is from the same Killa Saifullah district as Abdullah Jan, explained the anomaly of having a government-appointed tracker in a country which does not recognise a tracker’s evidence, although locally the courts do, by saying that Abdullah Jan is from a remote tribal area. In appointing him, the lawyer conjectured, the government was showing its respect and honouring the tribal tradition of the people there.

On the Afghan side of the boarder, the testimony of trackers is not accepted as evidence by the courts, However, under the old government, if the footprints have been detected by those trained in Criminal Technique, which is a faculty at the Kabul Police Academy and requires four years of study, the testimony of such a trained police officer could form part of the evidence against a defendant. The officer had to bring the suspected robber to put his foot next to the footprint to decide whether or not they were similar. According to a lawyer in Kabul, neither the Islamic Republic, nor the Islamic Emirate valued the traditional art of tracking as providing evidence admissible in court, and the Emirate does not accept Criminal Technique evidence either. 

An example of this was told to AAN by a man called Jan Muhammad, from Nad Ali district, who said that around four months ago, a kilo of opium paste was stolen from the house of a mullah in his village. The following day, the mullah went to Garmsir district of Helmand province to fetch a tracker. That tracker followed the robber’s footprints to a home in their village. The mullah then reported the case to the government. The Taleban came, said Jan Muhammad, and imprisoned the suspected robber and his brother. But they were in jail for only a few days and then their relatives told the Taleban to release them because they were not thieves. Jan Muhammad said:

…The judge released the suspected thieves and told the mullah that in Islamic sharia law, the suspect’s footprints could not be accepted as evidence and that tracking them was illegal in Islam. The judge also told the mullah that, as there was no other evidence that his opium had been stolen by these two men, the government could not keep them in prison anymore. Nor could it accuse them of being thieves.

Tracking may not be accepted by the Afghan courts, whether under the Republic or Emirate, but, to a great extent, it is accepted by the people, including the most senior government officials, as one incident relayed by Walat Khan shows:

… I don’t have a government job, but government people have, many times, asked me to track for them. For example, during the old government, something was stolen from Ahmad Wali Khan, the brother of the president, Hamid Karzai. He sent people to me and I went with them to the Ainomaina neighbourhood of Kandahar city. I don’t know if the robbery had taken place from Ahmad Wali’s home or if the house even belonged to him, but I went there and I tracked down the robbers. I told him that I had found the thieves, but please keep this to yourself because I’m a poor man and I don’t want to be killed or bothered by people.

Walat Khan said that high officials in the Taleban also, personally, seek out the skill of trackers when they are robbed. For example, after a robbery in a district of Helmand province, government officials asked for his help to identify the thieves:

… I met the current governor of Kandahar province. He promised to hire me in government service and provide me with a vehicle and security personnel. He told me to in charge of tracking for six districts Zheray, Panjwayi, Khakrez, Ghorak, Maiwand and Arghandab and track, as needed. So far, however, no action has taken place in terms of my appointment or providing security personnel or vehicles.

Abdullah Jan retired six years ago, after 25 years in service. The main problem for Walat Khan today, is that he would like to retire, but cannot.

When something is stolen in the area, I mean all over Kandahar, people ask me to follow the footprints and find the thief. I’m old enough, now. I don’t want to track anymore, but the victims of robberies won’t let me retire. They force me to keep going with them for tracking.

The interview with Abdullah Jan was first published on the website, KSF Khabari Sanga and can be viewed here.

Edited by Kate Clark


Afghan detectives Afghan investigators Paktia trackers tracking


Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

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