Strengthening Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security: Is it Equipped to Counter ‘Emerging’ Threats?
Intelligence agencies in Afghanistan are failing to collect high-value information that could be beneficial to Afghan’s domestic security. Deploying under-trained and inexperienced intelligence officers, with limited knowledge of technical tools or key operational skills, results in the collection of inadequate information [as well as inefficient] flow and management. With amateurish operational skills, these agents are unable to collect vital information for state security; some, even in the best of their experience, collect poor quality intelligence. Information collected from major known terror outfits and key government institutions could force policy makers and military leadership to make wrong decisions. The main objective of intelligence gathering is to maintain a swift flow of information, but the NDS officers are not well versed in this task. For example, the successful capture of Kunduz (a province in northern Afghanistan) by the Taliban did not occur because of their weapons superiority or technical expertise in battlefield; it happened because of massive failure of intelligence cooperation and coordination between the NDS, the National Security Agency of Afghanistan (NSA), the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the Interior Ministry (MoI).
This was a case of intelligence failure in so far as alerts from security agencies coupled with available collected intelligence reports highlighting Taliban’s plan to capture the city were all simply ignored or refuted by the Ministry of Defence and the NSA, even after receiving regular real-time Taliban movements. However, the fall of Kunduz did not come as a surprise, particularly considering the territory already controlled by Taliban. The subsequent siege of Kunduz, even after receiving real-time Taliban movements confirmed by security alerts and already available intelligence inputs points towards a massive intelligence failure. It is important to note that, right from the initial establishment of the NDS with the assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), collecting and disseminating intelligence, managing information flow and formulating clear operational objectives have all constituted major challenges.
Additionally, the saga of lost-in-translation and unclear objectives massively affected the relationship between the Pentagon, the NDS, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which all approached differently the ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan. These different visions and perspectives towards war on terrorism in Afghanistan, impacted negatively the Afghan National Army (ANA)and the NDS. This was especially the case after the withdrawal of US troops in late 2014; the challenges faced were beyond the capacity of the NDS. Since then, the Taliban attacks compromised Kabul’s control over many territories. ANA endured major casualties during the early days of US withdrawal, forcing it to operate thinly within the territories under their control. The Taliban attacked from Pakistan’s side of the border, crippling an Afghan effective response. The NDS failure to adequately and systematically collect vital intelligence, especially in rural regions, remains a challenge which hinders its ability to respond to or even identify sudden attacks.
Political and military interventions by neighbouring countries, various warlords, violent non-state actors such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State, are the main factor behind the prolonged civil war which continues to pose a grave threat to Afghan’s national security today. It is important to note that after each attack the only statement received from security institutions in Kabul is that the attacks were carried by elements operating beyond the border. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has been a haven for terrorist groups, but Afghan national intelligence agencies on numerous accounts, severely compromised domestic and regional security.
On numerous accounts, the then President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, admitted the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to train and equip militants in Pakistan and then sending them to Afghanistan to carry out terror attacks. It is also important to note that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recruited and trained over 250,000 mujahid fighters (between the ages of 14 to 45) in the last century, whereas the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded the ISI to train those fighters along with Pakistani military and ISI intelligence officers. General Musharraf acknowledged the nation’s practice of arming and training militant groups, especially acknowledging the role of ISI in providing financial aid to Taliban within its territory. He even acknowledged the existence of on-going operations conducted by ISI in Afghanistan with a special emphasis on financial and military assistance provided to the Taliban in an effort to carry out attacks against the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) through-out the country.
In addition to this, Pakistan’s former ambassador to US Husain Haqqani, on numerous occasions, confirmed the Islamabad’s policy of sponsoring terrorism through violent non-state actors. Moreover, there were vital documents highlighting that the financial assistance sent from Washington to the Pakistani military which was strictly meant to assist in counter terrorism, was significantly used by the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to sponsor and arm violent militant factions. It is an un-deniable fact that the famed Pakistan’s ISI has been the principle sponsor and master mind of many violent attacks in Afghanistan and India, from a major participant in 9/11, to train bombings in Mumbai, the attack on Indian parliament in 2001 followed by the 26/11 terror siege, or still the attack on the Kabul International airport. Pakistan also brazenly aided and abetted famed terror leaders such as Osama bin Laden or Mullah Umar.
It was rather the failure of major nations to provide timely aid to Afghanistan, coupled with the sheer neglect to strengthen intelligence gathering units, which paved the way for Islamic violent factions to survive and prosper.
Moscow was particularly involved in regional Afghan politics until a full-scale invasion in 1978. Intelligence agencies such as the KGB were used extensively in an effort to overthrow regional leaders.
Intelligence is no longer limited to the traditional assimilation of information flow and its management; in modern warfare, intelligence is engagement with human beings to gain leverage. It is very difficult to separate the role of intelligence during peace and war-time. In the west, intelligence agencies are not only seen as warning of an incoming threat, rather they act as an informational hub — comprising varying procedures from information gathering to its secret assessment. It is important to note that reforming a national security architecture also highlights the legitimacy of the government.
Within the domain of security architecture, our approach will not focus on the challenges faced during technical and covert operations; instead it aims to identify factors which can make NDS a responsible agency while discussing the importance of NDS post-9/11. The traditional operational mechanism of Afghan intelligence agencies is largely based on human intelligence because of inadequate technical equipment’s and monetary support. The intelligence is largely gathered through local farmers, sympathetic teachers, responsible shop owners, and village headmen. Since the intelligence so gathered is deemed to come from un-reliable sources, it holds poor quality and it is doubtful. At the same time, the by the book feature is essentially absent as there is no rule book or framework.
Role of Afghan Intelligence During the Soviet Invasion
During the Soviet invasion, numerous domestic intelligence institutions were established with the support of the then KGB and GRU (Military Intelligence Directorate) aiming to tighten the grip around the mujahedeen fighters. In the meantime, domestic intelligence agencies such as the Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) along with Khadamar-e Aetela’at-e Dawlati (KhAD) enjoyed hospitable relations with both KGB and GRU, in the light of their extensive influence on intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Between 1980 and 1992, these intelligence agencies played a vital role in countering extremist forces in Afghanistan. However, in 1992, Dr. Najibullah’s government collapsed and so did the entire government infrastructure, including its intelligence institutions.
The period of the 1980s is usually termed as the utopian period of Afghan politics. The governments of the time, in an effort to ensure stability and security in the region, established four intelligence agencies, two external: Da Kargarano Amniyati Mu’asasa (KAM); Workers Intelligence Service, Da Afghanistan da Gato de SataloAdara (AGSA); along with two domestic agencies WAD and KhAD. President Taraki’s regime was awfully short (between 1978-1979); the political decisions of his successor, President Hafizullah Amin, created a rift among intelligence agencies and regional communist parties. Because of these differences AGSA was dissolved.
In the early 1980s, the government replaced the intelligence agency KAM with the KhAD. In 1986, the then government systematically removed KhAD from the then Interior Ministry (MOI) while establishing a new department titled Office of the Prime Minister which was later re-named as the Ministry of State Security, Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD). The then Director General, Dr Najibullah reported directly to KGB headquarters in Moscow. In addition to this, former KGB operatives cited the manpower estimation of over 17,000 to 35,000 individuals in Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) alone, whereas they estimated presence of over 100,000 local assets and the presence of over three to four KGB officers assisting one (KhAD) officer. Beyond the border, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence recruited trained and armed over 90,000 to 100,000 mujahid fighters between 1980 and 1990 while receiving financial assistance from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to counter Soviet armed forces.
The KhAD was specifically tasked to maintain domestic stability and security in the region while ensuring uninterrupted governance from the then communist leadership while maintaining relationship between all tribes and minority groups under the programs initiated by the then Ministry of Nationalities and Tribal Affairs. Moreover, KhAD earned the title of Secret squads of KGB by demonstrating complete ruthlessness in an effort to assist the then government to maintain absolute control over urban territories. KhAD also secretly financed religious scholars and established a separate government institution under the name of Directorate of Religious Affairs. It is important to note that the KhAD was a politico-centred intelligence agency led by President Dr Najibullah who tried to use every available means to justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While extensively emphasising the importance of urban territorial control, the then Afghan government and their Soviet advisors failed to exercise control over rural hinterlands.
In the early years of KhAD operations, intelligence officers were extensively trained in the art of torture. This training was a part of their curriculum as promoted mostly by the then East German officers (Stasi) and KGB trainers. During their reign, numerous hidden execution sites were created, and large number of Afghans were kidnapped and executed. However, with a twist in KGB leadership, officers from KhAD were tutored in electronic intelligence techniques, drifting from the traditional interrogation techniques.
According to one former KGB officer, between 1980 and late 1984 over 80,000 Afghans entered the Soviet Union. By 1986, over 25,000 officers from the KhAD were trained in special intelligence techniques. In the light of numerically few trained intelligence officers in NDS, the then leadership had no choice but to employ KGB-trained officers and deploy inexperienced recruits. In an effort to reform the entire intelligence infrastructure, especially in the light of NDS poorly executed operations, policy makers must address this issue immediately. It is imperative to reform the current intelligence architecture while establishing laws which could prevent the use of domestic agencies to achieve political gains.
Moreover, the KhAD recruited large numbers of informers and maintained a close-knit relationship with tribal lords, particularly those residing close to the border, in an effort to both maintain strict vigilance, monitor the supply routes taken by resistance fighters, and ensuring safety and security of government officers. The KGB employed numerous tactical manoeuvres. One such manoeuvre was maintaining tribal connection which they effectively used to infiltrate resistance fighters, destroy their operations, flood with incorrect information, and create an aura of mistrust within the resistance fighters in an effort to severe their relationship with local communities. Their main goal was to incite violence between the tribes, fuelling ambitions within the powerful tribal leaders, and use all means necessary to exploit their ambitions, while ensuring that they do not participate in anti-communist movements. The sole agenda of Soviet intelligence agencies was to exploit their ethnicity, identity and cultural linkage while limiting the nation to a meagre tool of Soviet propaganda.
The Role of the CIA
After years of war, insecurity and instability, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was established in 2002 - with the assistance of CIA and the Pentagon - in an effort to counter the threat posed by the Taliban while collecting information from urban and rural regions. This latest intelligence agency was a replacement of the Soviet-sponsored KhAD. During the Soviet occupation the KhAD emerged as the ‘powerful domestic intelligence agency, ruthless and yet one of the most professional intelligence groups with battlefield experience’- however well known for tactics such as ‘detention without trial, forced abduction, mass execution by comparison the NDS was a strong leadership led organization; however, it lacked ingenuity, professional conduct, relevant intelligence trainings or adequate finances. Since its formal establishment, no directives/framework were established to ensure its professionalism. Its leaders even failed to adapt CIA directives. Today the nation is in desperate need of establishing a well-informed intelligence agency which could effectively provide vital information on insurgent’s whereabouts/movements and distribute timely to a relevant group to take necessary action. The vital source of information is formed by the interaction with tribal leaders; this interaction, when properly channelled through local commanders, is the foundational route of intelligence in Afghanistan.
The command structure of the NDS is independent, which means that it does not come under the architecture of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior; however, it does host a close-knit relationship with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at all levels. Its operations are directed by the National Security Agency of Afghanistan; the head of NDS reports directly to the President. On numerous occasions the NDS has been blamed for not adequately liaising with regional police commanders or Ministry of Defence (MOD) officials while providing un-timely and inaccurate intelligence when asked by relevant agencies. Moreover, and on numerous occasions the leadership within the NDS ignored relevant and vital information while responding untimely or withholding certain intelligence vital for other agency operations. Another failure of the NDS is the lack of technical and scientific know-how. While looking at the previous operational prognosis, the NDS repeatedly failed to assess collected intelligence which points towards another key issue related to an absent policy framework. NDS intelligence officers face no difficulty in gathering intelligence; however, they appear to be challenged during assessment. There is an absolute need to establish an operational mechanism, a framework or an institutional doctrine of intelligence agencies highlighting clear goals to be established during democratic regimes. It will not be incorrect to state that Intelligence agencies operating in Afghanistan are in desperate need for necessary technical and management systems.
In the light of repeated intelligence failures and mistrust with their sister intelligence agencies, the NDS has received acute criticism even for disrespecting and ignoring the orders of their Commander-in-Chief i.e. the President. The frequent inter agency confrontation forced discontented political leadership to initiate numerous debates on open forums acutely criticising the NDS, especially the unruly behaviour of the chiefs who openly criticised actions of the President. This sudden transition of the NDS from an intelligence agency to a political party invited acute criticism from intelligence and military experts throughout the world.
In an effort to maintain strict discipline amongst the NDS leadership, President Karzai frequently changed said leadership; however, this brought no significant change in their operations. Thus, domestic contentions between the NDS and other security agencies coupled with the successful capture of Kunduz by the Taliban and the failure to appropriately act even after receiving viable intelligence inputs broke the trust of many political leaders in Kabul. Policy makers need to understand that for every intelligence agency there is a fail-safe related to unforeseeable errors. This fail safe is further reinforced by a marriage of three pillars of the agency: the decision-making level, the operational level and the enforcement level. The cooperation and coordination of these three pillars is absolutely vital. Furthermore, failure of intelligence does not necessarily mean misinterpretation of vital information or failure for the agency to respond. Intelligence failures can occur due to failings in any of the three aforementioned pillars. To ensure that the agency remains active and aggressive, policy makers must enforce reforms while keeping in mind recent and future threats.
When an agency suffers from a failure at a strategic and operational level, it is the responsibility of the heads of these levels to conduct a thorough assessment of the machinery. Usually, intelligence failures are largely unavoidable; however, it is always imperative for various management heads to run a pre-simulation assessment before initiating an operation. Certain failures such as understanding the operation, agency’s ability to conduct, coordinate and cooperate with various actors, and inadequate dissemination of information occurs because of inadequate training of intelligence officers.
Policy makers must understand that intelligence agencies are the engine of both domestic and external security architecture, an engine whose primary function is to ensure domestic security in the country. Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or HaMossad leModin in uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim (Mossad), which work on dual operational theory, most intelligence agencies are either offensive or defensive but not both. In the light of our current issue, the NDS is relatively passive. When the Taliban were defeated, one of the main challenges for Washington was to re-structure security institutions in Afghanistan. Washington tasked the re-structuring of Afghan National Army to its Special Operations Command Centre (SOCC) under the leadership of the United States’ Central Command, an agency also tasked with restructuring the NDS and local law enforcement units. There is a sheer absence of integration between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the NDS which policy makers must counter through human intelligence trainings and viable domestic security legislation. It must always be remembered that the Afghan intelligence plays a vital role in providing real-time intelligence to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assets. Furthermore, there is an absolute need to train NDS officers on new and innovating intelligence gathering and assessment techniques. This task could be handed over to the CIA which is fully capable of training Afghan intelligence officers on gathering information through human intelligence techniques.
Being the main intelligence gathering agency in Afghanistan, the NDS continues to share intel with necessary policy makers as well as provincial police commanders and political leaders. Afghan National Army recruits, the NDS comprises staffs and officers who were previously trained by Soviets or fought alongside the Mujahideen. However, in an effort to perform effectively and efficiently there is an absolute need of clarity. Although the National Directorate of Security is one of the most responsible and professional arms within the ANSF, in the light of emerging Taliban and other violent factions in Afghanistan there is no need to link with ANSF or ISAF operations - particularly considering the history of poor coordination and cooperation between the two agencies. It is vital for the NDS to maintain a strict framework of intelligence, since its officers belong to all sects, ethnicities and tribes. It has gripped every city, town and province. The NDS is a frontline plain-clothed military intelligence unit that separates violent actors from the crowd.
Although having defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda factions roughly 17 years ago, Afghanistan remains a battlefield. Since the departure of large sections of US forces, tactical aerial reconnaissance aircrafts and hell-fire armed drones, large unmonitored rural areas of Afghanistan are prone to Taliban occupation. Various Pakistan sponsored terrorist factions are inducing violence on the streets. Using non-traditional methods such as suicide bombings, vehicle laden high explosive devices, planned ambushes, assassinations and militant factions have re-appeared.
Despite receiving extensive financial assistance, the challenges faced by security agencies continue to increase phenomenally. Many experts continue to question the failure of intelligence mechanism taking place even after receiving extensive guidance from NATO and CIA officers in their 17 years of stay. This points towards the fact that the resources deployed by the CIA were not used efficiently. Also, Washington’s deployment of necessary US Special forces in Iraq and Middle East theatre seems to be at least partly responsible. Moreover, linking intelligence techniques with Afghanistan’s culture was difficult for many CIA experts whereas the State Department continued to blame woes on foreign elements and Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence interference in creating a vital strategy for Afghanistan. Traditionally, Washington and NATO have been playing the game half-heartedly. Allowing insurgency to develop was a mistake in the first place, for said insurgency soon became too aggressive and beyond the control of policy makers and their efforts regarding domestic counter-extremist policies.
There are other extremist factions besides Al Qaeda and the Taliban, including Daesh and state-sponsored elements such as the Haqqani Network. Since a large rural section of Afghanistan remains unmonitored and since the NDS in its limited passive operation cannot monitor all pathways, it is possible for many radical Islamic factions such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh seek refuge in the country. Today, Kabul continues to suffer from numerous organisational challenges - besides poor infrastructural framework, inadequate inter-agency interaction, poor cooperation and coordination, socio-economic limitations, rampant corruption, unsafe and unguarded territories, and terrorist activities. Terrorist factions will continue to be rampant and discreet.
On numerous occasions political leadership from Afghanistan and the US have bilaterally discussed the development of a dedicated Afghan Air Force. However, after identifying critical faults during initial developments in this Afghan Air Force, military and policy makers clearly questioned the capability of a sustainable air force.
With a clear mandate by President Donald Trump to deploy extensive US military forces, experts have now raised questions on the traditional operations of assisting, advising and training Afghan National Security Forces while ensuring a hand-over of governance to Afghan nationals. It is now clear that US forces will again be called if an Afghan unit is suppressed under heavy fire. The Afghan forces did manage to free the city of Kunduz but for this they required American air forces and technical mounted units to release the pressure, clearly highlighting the fact that Afghan intelligence and security forces can no longer challenge violent terror factions solely. This statement once again questions the capability of Afghan National Security Forces, which remains vulnerable even after 17 years of presence of both NATO and US forces.
After extensively studying intelligence gathering mechanisms of various operations conducted by the NDS it became clear that NDS officers were unable to assess gathered intelligence inputs and that the policy initiated so as to support the officers failed drastically. The basic difference between the NDS and its mother agency CIA lies in its operational mechanisms. In the history of Afghanistan’s autocratic regimes were able to thrive because of their essential reliance on intelligence agencies. The Soviet invasion came when US and its allies failed to provide a secure environment.
During a liberal and democratic government in Afghanistan, political leadership and policy makers failed to coordinate, a fact which resulted in intense confrontation between political leaders and heads of intelligence agencies. Moreover, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence assistance to the NDS in strengthening intelligence sharing mechanisms surprised many military experts. Also, the global fight between RA&W and ISI have chosen Afghanistan as a playground, a fact which drastically hinders both the NDS and CIA’s initiatives to maintain peace and security in the region. To make things worse, Afghanistan has a history of politicisation of intelligence agencies, which points towards the need to establish a viable institutional framework.
With few experienced intelligence officers operating within the NDS and with the CIA’s inability to train and recruit more expeditiously the NDS was left with no choice but to employ Soviet trained officers. To make the NDS an effective and professional organization, policy makers must focus their attention on its training and recruitment policy. Furthermore, Afghanistan continues to suffer from wounds received from a violent past while seemingly moving toward an unrevealingly bleak future. Adapting new and innovative techniques has always been a difficult task, especially re-structuring intelligence agencies so as to work democratically. Afghanistan, of course, wants to change yet in the light of its violent past, this change will be harsh and slow.
With a history of repeatedly committing the same mistakes the government has yet to introduce viable pragmatic reforms so as to strengthen its intelligence agencies. Kunduz is not just one mistake the NDS committed there were numerous entirely avoidable intelligence failures, in fact so many that they would be impossible to highlight in one article alone. With a history of repeating multiple intelligence failures, the need to strengthen the NDS and other agencies into professional intelligence institutions is the need of the hour.
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