Afghanistan Weekly War Update: The Infiltration Challenge

4 MINS READJun 14, 2011 | 12:16 GMT
Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict


The United States is deploying some 80 counterintelligence agents to Afghanistan to improve the screening of recruits and monitoring of troops, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan spokesman Lt. Col. David C. Simons said June 10. The deployment comes in the wake of violence against U.S. and allied troops by Afghan security forces. The risk that militants will infiltrate indigenous security forces is a given as a result of a U.S. exit strategy that amounts to "Vietnamization" of the Afghan conflict. According to The New York Times, members of the Afghan security forces have killed 57 people (including 32 U.S. troops) and wounded another 64 since March 2009. More than half of those casualties occurred in 2011. Part of this spike could be attributed to the rapid growth and expansion of the Afghan security forces, which are set to reach 395,000 by 2014. Afghanistan's security forces currently total nearly 300,000, which represents an expansion of some 100,000 since 2009. As attrition remains a problem, the intake of new personnel must be extensive simply to maintain the current size of the force — much less to expand it by another 100,000. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, estimates that although 110,000 security forces had been recruited in 2010, the high attrition rate meant that the net increase in forces was only 70,000. Time magazine reported an annual attrition rate of 32 percent for the Afghan army and 23 percent for the Afghan police, which would mean NATO would need to recruit 86,000 in order to add only 35,000. This training effort is an enormous undertaking by any means. The speed and scale dictated by the aggressive American withdrawal timetable compound inherent problems with infiltration, since they make the screening process even more unmanageable. Given this reality, 80 U.S. counterintelligence personnel are not likely to suffice in order to fully vet the large number of new Afghan security personnel. Moreover, the vetting process requires a considerable understanding of cultural nuances and subtleties with which the United States has long struggled. A U.S. Army soldier holds a HIIDE portable biometric device that scans retinas and fingerprints Even if unlimited resources were available for vetting, screening in the Western sense is extraordinarily difficult. Birth records do not always exist in Afghanistan, and in many cases, there is no way to run a background check on most people beyond having local tribal elders vouch for them. An extensive and comprehensive effort is under way to build up biometric data on the entire country, a process essentially being done from scratch. Such records can only alert investigators to candidates previously caught or associated with anti-coalition activity. This leaves enormous holes in the ability to screen that will continue to challenge Afghan security forces. (click here to enlarge image)

Uncertainty Over Patience and Commitment

Lt. Gen. Caldwell, emphasizing the need for "strategic patience and an enduring commitment," said he does not expect to complete training efforts until 2016 or 2017. This is two to three years later than the current deadline of 2014 for the end of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat operations in the country. During his visit last week, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also emphasized that there would be no "rush for the exits" in terms of the July deadline to begin drawing down forces in Afghanistan. A host of confirmation hearings (including for Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, soon to receive a fourth star and replace Gen. David Petraeus as commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan) are intensifying the discussion of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized last week in one such hearing that "while the U.S. has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment in troops and in dollars is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable" and reports have indicated that he is pushing the White House for a more significant reduction of forces. While Congress does not dictate military strategy, Kerry is counted as one of several inside U.S. President Barack Obama's camp (including Vice President Joe Biden) pushing for more substantive reductions, and the matter is far from settled.

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