To win this war we need good intelligence. Right now, we are throwing our swords in darkness. Those were the words of an Afghan colonel I met in Farah province one year ago as a part of my visits to various army corps. I thought it the best single sentence I have ever heard - it succinctly defined success or failure in the Afghan war.
The geography and politics of Afghanistan are intertwined with intelligence and intelligence work. The dispatch of envoys and emissaries of the British Raj and the court of Russian czar were all part of influence and counter-influence operations; dissidents from the Russian, British and Persian empires sought refuge in Afghanistan and Alexander the Great to Timur the Lame and Hitler’s Gestapo sent delegations to use Afghanistan as corridors to infiltrate and challenge each other’s spheres of influence - either in India or the Khanates of Central Asia - to carry out sabotage and subversive activities. In between - Afghans were mere beneficiaries at best - and victims of these tournaments of shadows at worst. This history has made Afghans resilient survivors of treacherous games and schemes - but poor intelligence players. Now is the time to lay a strong foundation and reform the Afghan intelligence apparatus.
President Ashraf Ghani will be remembered for his resolve and determination to reform the Afghan security sector. He has taken some bold steps on reforming the army and police, but the Afghan intelligence community remains classical, obsolete and in dire need of reform. The Afghan war is essentially an intelligence war. Good intelligence separates victories from failures on battlefields and in calculus of the Taliban and its allies. For now, we lack an organized, professional and well-trained intelligence apparatus with a clear mandate for domestic and foreign intelligence operations in the country. An oversized, inflated, and exhausted community of Soviet KGB trained officers to a plethora of others trained mainly in western countries, are struggling in a shadow war to infiltrate, mitigate and counter the Taliban and others.
A famous saying sums up the status of affairs in the Afghan intelligence community - Afghans are good collectors but poor processors, analysts and policy makers. This must change in shape, form, size and mandate. The disconnect between the producers of intelligence and the consumers of intelligence products needs to be addressed. The eyes and ears of this war need to be sharp, well equipped and highly trained.
In a country nested with intelligence schemes, operatives and an ongoing intelligence proxy war mostly waged and supported by Afghan neighbors - the art of intelligence has the final say in battlefield gains and war strategy. The best information and intelligence product define the winners and losers of this war. This underpins the necessity of an overhaul of the existing obsolete intelligence apparatus.
The recent spate of insider attacks against Afghan troops and US personnel in the country clearly shows gaps and intelligence failures of Afghans and their allies in sourcing and defusing these insider threats. Furthermore, a series of high-profile attacks in the capital Kabul, major cities and on military installations and convoys further makes the case that the time is ripe for a thorough review and assessment of the Afghan intelligence apparatus.
Key Challenges and Solutions
Reforming Structure and Organization
The Afghan intelligence community consist of three agencies with the Afghan National Directorate of Security famously known as the NDS as the apex organisation. This structure has undergone at least four evolutions - the oldest Office of Information and Records (OICR), AGSA, KHAAD, Ministry of National Security, and recently the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The currently institutional structure and organisation of the NDS is a legacy of the past and outdated. Furthermore, the two other intelligence agencies i.e. police and army intelligence have overlapping mandates with the NDS. The current structure of the NDS, Police Intelligence and Army Intelligence require a robust update and restructuring to meet the challenges of today.
The first step to reforming the structure and organisation of the Afghan intelligence community should be to set up a bipartisan and impartial commission to review and assess the Afghan intelligence sector and present a comprehensive report identifying weaknesses and strength. This commission should particularly propose a purpose-built intelligence agency for domestic intelligence and a separate agency for foreign intelligence plus a joint intelligence chiefs committee under the chairmanship of Afghan president to meet at least bimonthly to brief him on their operations. Furthermore, police and army intelligence should be given specific mandates to focus in their relevant line of work. All the former Afghan chiefs of intelligence should organize into an advisory board to advise the National Security Council on matters of national interest as and when required. The experience and knowledge of former intelligence chiefs should be utilised at every level of the Afghan security sector.
Modernisation of Intelligence Development - Analytical and Systems Challenges
The current information and intelligence processing cycle within the Afghan intelligence apparatus is at best malfunctioning and at worst have incompetent collectors, processors and analysts. Repeated attacks on the same targets with the same tactics and explosives pinpoint to a deep flaw in the system. A major systems and analytical capability assessment must be undertaken and addressed. Three systems of analysis - soviet intelligence processing cycle, Jihadist guerrilla tactical intelligence processing cycle and the western intelligence - policy cycle can not exist in parallel to each other. One should also be mindful that the culture of intelligence cycle building requires time and is normally built over a long time.
Working with Allies and Partners
The Afghan intelligence agencies work with a variety of regional and western partners for both information sharing as well as joint operations and capacity building. Every intelligence agency is required to pursue its own national interest but in the current globalised and interconnected world this need is direr, especially with the five eyes countries and regional intelligence agencies. While we should welcome assistance from western and regional partners to build capacity and capabilities of NDS, police intelligence and army intelligence in HUMINT and SIGINT areas but we have to put in place filters and counter measures to ensure influence operations and infiltrations do not take place. Furthermore, the Afghan intelligence apparatus should not rely on one sole partner but rely on a variety of partners to build its capacity and capabilities through mutual agreements.
Institutional Oversight and Control
The Afghan parliament, Office of National Security Council and Office of Commander in Chief (CIC) should put in place legal and policy instruments to control and oversee budget and operations of the Afghan intelligence apparatus. This should of course take place in secrecy given the nature of work just like the congress and senate in the United States oversee operations and budget of CIA, DIA, DNI and NSA in closed door sessions. History shows that unchecked intelligence apparatus can go rogue especially in the eastern military culture and turn into dictatorial and rogue agencies. Historically, Afghan intelligence agencies have been designed for domestic espionage and mostly worked beyond its legal boundaries to infringe people’s rights, arrest and disappearance of hundreds of Afghan citizens this was especially in case of KHAAD. The current agency i.e. NDS is by far more professional but to ensure a sustained professionalization of these institution the right legal and policy boundaries need to be defined for them.
Professionalization of the Force and Leadership Challenges
At least three generations of officers work in the Afghan intelligence apparatus - soviet trained KGB officers, mujahidin guerrilla warfare tactical intelligence officers and the recent western trained officers. The soviet KGB trained officer corps dominate the other two categories because they have the right critical mass i.e. numbers plus a background in intelligence work. This must change. The Afghan government need to decide whether it likes its intelligence agencies to operate in KGB modus operandi or western and NATO countries modus operandi. The later is preferred and wanted by the Afghan public given their tragic memories from mass executions by the former KHAAD who had embedded soviet advisors. Furthermore, job security and institutional secrecy is of utmost importance. The recent flow of recent political appointees with no or little background in the intelligence field has demoralized the institutions of the Afghan intelligence community. NDS continues to be one of the most well-respected security institutions in the country but its unknown officers and agents deserve recognition, job security, promotion and less political interference from its political masters.
In addition - the service term for any NDS chief needs to be limited. Afghan intelligence chiefs tend to work for lifetime if they get the politics right. This is a dangerous practice. The service term for any NDS chief should be limited to 3 years and after that a ban for 5 years for any political activities. Intelligence chiefs should no go on exposing state secrets for political gain.
Organizational Culture and Change Management
Three organisational cultures exist side by side within the Afghan intelligence community: soviet style method of intelligence development, mujahidin style of guerrilla intelligence work and finally western style of intelligence development and processing. All this needs to be merged into a single institutional culture and modus operandi of intelligence development. Managing this change will require a roadmap and a robust training infrastructure.
Hybrid Warfare, Full Spectrum Operations and the Need for Good Intelligence
Increasingly Afghanistan is turning into a battleground of hybrid warfare of its neighbors and regional powers. A combination of proxy warfare, IO operations, disinformation campaigns, outside engineered civil unrests, cyber violence and economic blockade are perfect description of the ground realities of the war. This unrestricted warfare requires a robust intelligence apparatus to counter and deter the powers to engage in such full spectrum operations in the Afghan territory. Afghanistan cannot afford to turn into the experimental ground for hybrid and unrestricted warfare of great powers and its neighbors. The best deterrence to such a scheme is good intelligence and a robust intelligence community equipped withe right tools and training to address this threat.
Information Sharing and Inter-agency Coordination
“Good intelligence is about prevention and/or mitigation of the threat not post-mortem analysis.” This was the reaction of a former high-ranking Afghan security official when the Haqqani network attacked the German embassy building in the capital Kabul. Afghan officials called it our 9/11 attack because even though the threat existed and was known, a lack of a robust inter-agency information sharing, and coordination insured any form of timely warning would fall through the cracks. The NUG has already established inter-agency information sharing agencies such as NASRAT and others but the effectiveness of systems and procedures of these coordination offices need to be thoroughly evaluated and re-assessed in view of the recent intelligence failures. Peer competition, agency rivalries and personality differences can only cost lives in Afghanistan.
The Way Forward
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani need to thoroughly re-evaluate and assess Afghan intelligence apparatus. He should commission a high-level committee of impartial professionals to do a study of the Afghan intelligence and present to him and the Afghan parliament a reform package. This package should do a strengths and weakness analysis of the sector and recommend to him the formation of: (a) A Joint Intelligence Committee of all the intelligence chiefs of Afghanistan. (b). Separate domestic and foreign intelligence and establishment of two separate agencies. (c) Update the legal and policy foundations of the entire intelligence community of Afghanistan. (d) a comprehensive program of investment in the capacity and capabilities development of the Afghan intelligence community.
Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey.