The May 31 deadly terror attack in the heart of Kabul that killed and wounded hundreds of ordinary Afghans was not the first one in such a highly important area, nor was it the first time that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have failed to safeguard their own perimeters – not to mention their repeated failures to protect key civilian institutions, peaceful gatherings, and diplomatic missions in the country over the years. A month before the deadly Kabul attack, a Taliban suicide squad stormed the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) main base in the north of the country, leaving carnage behind – 150 Afghan soldiers were killed and another 100-plus were injured.
Over the past several months, militants were able to breach security parameters and hit key ANDSF institutions deep inside the Afghan capital, Kabul. Among the targets were the largest Afghan Military Hospital, cadets of the Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan Ministry of Defense, and the Directorate of VIP Protection and Security – an elite agency responsible for protecting high-ranking Afghan government officials and prominent leaders.
Although Pakistani “safe haven and support” for the insurgent groups along with insurgents’ resilience and adaptability are notable factors in carrying out such deadly assaults, the main reasons why ANDSF consistently fails to foil high-profile attacks are inattention to Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS), and political interference and appointments in ANDSF institutions.
What Went Wrong With the NDS?
Right after toppling the Taliban regime in late 2001 for refusing to handover Osama bin Laden – the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks – the U.S.-led international community embarked on a state-building mission in Afghanistan. Part of their mission was – and still is – to build the ANDSF.
Although their intention was noble and realistic, their approach has been misguided and wrong. Rather than prioritizing the ANDSF brain, the NDS, they have concentrated their efforts on building the ANDSF’s body parts, namely the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).
Due to this historical mistake, NDS – the main organ of the ANDSF – remains highly under-resourced and ill-equipped to tackle the challenges emanating from terrorist groups, as well as to counter unfriendly neighboring countries’ malicious intelligence interventions and activities inside the country. The number of high-profile attacks carried out since last year against hard ANDSF targets in the Afghan capital alone says it all about the status and competence of the NDS.
While high profile attacks against hard targets take months of planning, surveillance, and coordination, NDS is unable to detect and thwart these deadly attacks during any of the preparatory stages. But this is not the only problem; NDS seems to gravely suffer in the intelligence-gathering field as well, and thus misses important developments in the country – not to mention its failures to prevent new and/or root out existing Taliban infiltrators in ANDSF, who turn their guns on coalition troops. This has caused massive mistrust between foreign troops and Afghan security forces.
Last year, an impostor was able to use ANA helicopters and armored vehicles, traveling from province to province with ANA transportation and protection after tricking an ANA corps commander along with several other high-ranking ANDSF officials with fake certificates of appreciation from the Presidential Palace. This wasn’t his first time though; he had been engaging in such activities for more than a decade before his arrest. Nor was he the first person to do so. Before him, a “shopkeeper” disguised as a prominent Taliban leader and negotiator made it to the Presidential Palace and met with the former Afghan president, and another man posing as a “peace messenger” severely injured the former head of the NDS itself, to name some high profile cases.
Furthermore, NDS is still disastrously dependent on pen and paper, not because of security and/or reliability issues, but simply because computers, email, and secure intranet connectivity are alien ideas for a lot of people serving in the agency. Therefore, not only is NDS not in a position to form a coherent front to respond to the psychological warfare and social media conspiracies crippling the very foundations of the new democratic Afghan regime, but it has even failed to regulate a social media policy for the agency itself to control the rising Facebook craze among its own employees, whose immature posts and social media engagements are often contrary to the spirit and main objectives of the NDS itself.
Toxic Political Interference and Appointments
Political interference and appointments in ANDSF institutions and affairs is another culprit behind the deteriorating ANA, ANP, and NDS capabilities. From government officials and parliamentarians to the so-called opposition leaders, almost every influential Afghan figure intervenes or attempts to interfere in ANDSF institutions. Such interference is the root cause of many of ANDSF’s problems.
First of all, due to political meddling, political appointees have flooded ANDSF institutions and climbed the ladder to key positions, sometimes overnight – according to a former NDS chief, “over 90 percent” of key ANDSF positions were filled through “political and nepotistic” appointments. While political intervention and appointments in other sectors might affect service deliveries or cause economic burdens, doing so in the security and defense sector costs lives. Afghan soldiers and ordinary citizens are paying for incompetent appointees with their blood. Meanwhile, people appointed through political patronage are more loyal to their patrons than to the institutions they are serving in or to the Afghan state in general.
Second, political interference has drastically affected rewards and punishments in ANDSF institutions. Not only are merit-based appointments and promotions eroding, but incompetent and/or corrupt individuals are less likely to be demoted or face other punishments due to their patrons’ interventions. Often, security sector ministers cannot transfer or replace their subordinates because doing so would eventually cost them their own jobs. Afghan parliamentarians have played a significant role in worsening this situation; they have become self-centered power brokers at the cost of boarder national interest.
This has in turn fueled corruption in ADNSF institutions. There are multiple reports about embezzlement and misuse of ANDSF resources, but so far no one has bothered to explain why and how those serving in key ANDSF positions become so rich with salaries or less than $1,000 per month.
And finally, political interference has impeded reforming ANDSF institutions. Thus, most of these institutions are highly unprepared to face rising security challenges. Rather than being a proactive and aggressive force, ANDSF has been mostly defensive and reactive. Risk analysis and assessment as well as contingency planning are unfamiliar terms in most ANDSF institutions, and they are not adaptable learning organizations ready to keep pace with the evolving security environment.
Unprofessionalism and negligence of duty are at a peak in most ANDSF organizations. The Taliban were able to hit the elite protective agency last April simply because its leadership had allowed a public parking lot right next to the agency, without any oversight or precautionary measures. To provide another example, magnetic mines have become insurgents’ new weapon of choice because reckless ANDSF members, who mostly leave government vehicles unattended, can be easily targeted with these mines.
Similarly, while the Taliban and other terrorist groups have been able to enforce nighttime blackouts – forcing telecom providers to “shut down” their mobile phone networks after 5 pm in some major cities and provincial capitals – ANDSF has not pushed these same companies to stop selling unregistered and preregistered SIM cards, a dangerous tool allowing terrorists and criminals to get their messages through without being traced. They could simply use such SIM cards once and throw them away, making it impossible to trace them.
With such challenges in ANDSF institutions, preventing high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital and other large cities of Afghanistan is almost impossible, to say nothing of actually winning the Afghan war. Therefore, the Trump administration and the Afghan government must prioritize building NDS capabilities and work on depoliticizing all ANDSF institutions. Revitalizing NDS and depoliticizing ANDSF institutions are as important to securing Afghan cities and winning the Afghan war as making Pakistan stops aiding and abetting the terrorist groups fighting in Afghanistan.
Ghulam Farooq Mujaddidi is a Fulbright scholar and independent researcher. His research interests extend from state-building challenges to suicide attacks in Afghanistan.