ISAF's sophisticated Combined Joint Operations Center and its Afghanistan Mission Network will not be turned over to Afghanistan when coalition forces leave the country. (NATO)
KABUL, Afghanistan — On a typical day in the blast barrier-protected coalition side of Kabul International Airport, up to 150 personnel monitor the Afghanistan war in a large rectangular room that was once a gymnasium for coalition troops. Subdued lighting makes images and data leap from four giant displays at the front of the room, including one showing a detailed map of the area of operations.
This is the Combined Joint Operations Center created in 2009 on orders of then-U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It is here that intelligence produced from a sprawling enterprise of 95 video-camera-equipped aerostats, dozens of turboprop planes and drones, hundreds of ground sensors, human informants and intelligence analysts reaches commanders at the International Security Assistance Force, the 49-nation coalition of NATO and non-alliance nations.
Tying together intelligence from key allies, most of whom have their own secret networks, required fast brainstorming by the information technology gurus at the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency based at The Hague. They came up with a complex information-sharing scheme that allows nations that meet NATO information security standards to plug into the Afghanistan Mission Network, the intelligence backbone of the CJOC and other command sites.
The AMN and CJOC are widely considered among the most important technical advents of the war. If one ISAF nation finds land mines in its area of operations, for example, it can instantly share that information with other nations over AMN.
As powerful as AMN has turned out to be, the allies and their Afghan partners have no intention of turning over the network to the government of the Islamic Republic Afghanistan. As it stands, ISAF won’t even allow the Afghan government to plug in. That decision, which one officer at the CJOC described as an ongoing “sore spot” among transition planners, is emblematic of ISAF’s strategy of providing Afghans with a lower-tech ISR and communications enterprise on the road to 2014.
Instead of signals intelligence planes, the Afghans will get antennas on towers. Instead of Predator and Reaper drones, they will fly turboprops equipped with video cameras. Afghan ground troops will carry push-to-talk high frequency radios and personal cellphones instead of digital radios or militarized smartphones. Instead of the CJOC, Afghan officers will exercise command and control from a separate Ground Forces Command site located on the other side of Kabul International Airport.
The low-tech strategy is partly driven by cost, partly by security fears, but mostly out of a belief that Afghan society is not technically or culturally ready to adopt ISAF’s high-tech gear. In one view, it’s an enlightened approach: “The big problem in the past was that we had to make them Western,” said U.S. Army Col. Arlester Vernon Jr., whose job is to keep the CJOC running properly.
In hopes of tying together these lower-tech capabilities into an effective force, ISAF experts — known as Police Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams and army Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams — have fanned out across Afghanistan. They are helping army and police officers learn to use the lower-tech intelligence and communications technologies that are scheduled to be turned over completely to Afghans by the end of 2014. That deadline was blessed by NATO heads of state at their May summit in Chicago. With Afghan villagers reportedly expressing concern about their safety after the transition, U.S. and NATO officials have begun emphasizing that some international forces will remain in Afghanistan in a supporting role, with details still to be defined.
The question facing ISAF is whether this lower-tech apparatus can keep Afghans safe and the country together. An early test will come this year as the U.S. withdraws 22,000 troops by September, bringing U.S. presence down to 68,000 within a total ISAF force of 108,000.
Low-tech vs. High-tech
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Brendler, who is in charge of the communications capabilities for the coalition, said he feels “pretty good” about the abilities of Afghan forces to run their comms networks. He pointed to the state of technology during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and cautioned against exaggerating the downgrade in capabilities after 2014.
“It’s not like they’re in the Stone Age,” Brendler said. “They’re really not all that far behind, considering that we fought Desert Storm predominately with push-to-talk tactical radios. On top of that, they do have IP networks that are beyond what we had during Desert Storm to enable command and control.”
Realistically, lower-tech might be the only choice given the 2014 timeline. ISAF’s highly advanced intelligence-sharing enterprise operates in a country with a literacy rate of just 28.1 percent (43.1 percent for males; 12.6 percent for females), according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Fixing the literacy problem will take years, U.S. and NATO officials said.
“The fact that the vast majority of the population can neither read nor comprehend what numbers mean limits the technical competence that we can expect from the workforce in the Afghan National Security Forces,” Brendler said. “We have to be somewhat cautious about our appetite to give them high-tech, advanced state-of-the-art systems.”
Coping With Low Literacy
Even under the lower-tech approach, competition is fierce within the Afghan National Security Forces — an umbrella term for the army and national police — for literate, information-savvy soldiers and police officers to run networks and produce intelligence.
“They can be physician assistants, or special operations commandos, or they could be a number of other specialty functions that require the advanced skills that are enabled by advanced learning,” Brendler said.
The Afghanistan government is working to improve the literacy situation and nurture the nation’s first information technology-savvy generation, some of whom could end up in the security forces.
Kabul University has begun a program to train information technology specialists, and fiber-optic cables are being laid along Afghanistan’s country-spanning Ring Road. The fiber will link students and faculty at Afghanistan’s 18 universities into an information-sharing intranet that will be joined to the broader Internet by more fiber and satellite dishes as backups. Access to the Internet, however, will not be unfettered. Visiting technically sensitive sites will require special arrangements under a process defined by the Ministry of Higher Education. Sites deemed pornographic will be blocked.
“We know what is coming and going through the Internet,” said Tariq Meeran, project manager for the Afghanistan Research and Education Network, which includes the Internet initiative. If students “can do anything, it’s no good,” he said.
The university system, however, does not have the capacity to train as many Afghans as the government would like, said M. Salim Saay, the director of information technology in the Ministry of Higher Education.
Of 106,000 recent candidates for university courses, only 40,000 could be accepted, he said.
What is certain is that after 2014, Afghan forces will face the challenge of gathering intelligence and battling the Taliban, Haqqani network and drug lords with an enterprise that is far less advanced than ISAF’s. The modern system used by the coalition has produced at best a modest downward trend in “enemy initiated attacks” tallied by ISAF. Those attacks historically rise and fall annually with the arrival of warm weather, which means it is difficult to gauge a trend for 2012.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ashley, ISAF’s intelligence chief, cautioned against making too much of those statistics. ISAF is trying to find a way to add context — “a better ‘so what‘“ — to the attack statistics, which are “but one fact in a complex tapestry of data that explains the state of the insurgency,” Ashley said.
Chinese-made rockets still land on the grounds of ISAF’s heavily fortified Kandahar Airfield about once every four days. Attacks are down “a little” so far in 2012, said Air Force Col. Mark Eichin, who is in charge of force protection at ISAF’s Kandahar Airfield complex.
Violence within the Afghan National Security Forces is also an issue. Personal security is on the minds of the unarmed contractors and ISAF civilians who increasingly must install or upgrade networking equipment in compounds now or soon to be protected entirely by Afghan forces.
These technicians are keenly aware of the spate of “green-on-blue” attacks by rogue Afghans against ISAF members. In an April 2011, for example, Afghan pilot Col. Ahmed Gul shot to death eight U.S. airmen and a contractor at a Kabul command and control site before killing himself.
“We had some green-on-blue incidents in the last years, and it’s increasing,” said Cornelis Uijl, a former Dutch intelligence planner and now a field officer with NC3A, which on July 1 was scheduled to become part of a new agency called the NATO Communications and Information Agency. “So, the level of trust between the ISAF forces and the Afghan forces also is influenced by that,” Uijl said at the agency’s office at Kabul International Airport.
ISAF staff and contractors must go into Afghan compounds, such as the Ground Forces Command site in Kabul, to hook up communications equipment.
“How do you do your force protection on an Afghan base? Normally military guys are armed themselves. They come with body armor and guns. But contractors like Thales” — the prime contractor for military network equipment in Afghanistan — “they don’t have that. They come in there as civilians. We need to come up with a construct: how to protect them doing their work, so they can deliver their projects,” Uijl said.
A solution will require an update to NATO policy.
History on Their Side?
Intelligence expert Matt Pottinger is among those who think the lower-tech approach can work. As a Marine Corps captain based in Afghanistan, Pottinger helped pen the January 2010 article, “Fixing Intel,” that caused a stir by publicly criticizing the intelligence establishment for focusing on offensive “red” intelligence without also understanding the local populations whose hearts and minds must be won.
In Pottinger’s view, human intelligence will be more important than gear in the hands of Afghans.
“The Afghans have always had better human intelligence than us, and human intelligence is the name of the game in the fight they’re waging,” he said.
He pointed to the history of the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for control of the country in the years before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In those years the CIA quietly cultivated relationships with United Front leaders in an effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, according to an account in the book “Ghost Wars,” by Steve Coll. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the terror attacks, the relationships proved invaluable.
“If you look at 2001, when we toppled the Taliban, the intelligence was mostly human intelligence provided by the Afghans themselves,” Pottinger said. The United Front knew where the Taliban command sites were, and where their strong holds were.
The anti-Taliban commanders historically relied on informants and human observations, delivering the resulting intelligence to commanders via couriers.
After 2014, the Afghan National Security Forces will retain their human intelligence legacy but they will also have networking equipment, radios, cellphones, cameras on turboprops and SIGINT towers.
That’s vastly more technology than the Afghans had before 2001, Pottinger noted.
The decision not to link the Afghans into the Afghanistan Mission Network has confounded some ISAF officers. Through 2014 and probably afterwards, the Afghans will need to coordinate actions with their international partners. One officer in Kabul said the reluctance comes from fear that rogue Afghans could compromise the communication security of the network.
Vernon, the CJOC information technology chief, said information is routinely shared with the Afghans even without a digital link between AMN and Afghan forces: “There’s a difference between giving them our network, and giving them our info.”
The fate of AMN remains a hot-button issue within ISAF. Technologists at The Hague used to assume they were developing a network that eventually would be given to the Afghans. One said he thought that was still the case.
Semantics have become hugely important in the discussion. Some documents still refer to AMN as the “Afghan” mission network, a term that managers don’t like because it could imply that the network, ultimately, will be provided to Afghans.
NC3A’s General Manager Georges D’hollander underscored that the A in AMN stand for “Afghanistan” — a purely geographic reference.
At the end of the day, being plugged into AMN would help Afghan forces, but the fate of the country does not rest on AMN or any other technology, Pottinger said.
“Afghanistan won’t fail because of a lack of high tech gear. It won’t fail because of a lack of intelligence. If the Afghanistan government fails, it’s going to be because of weak political leadership,” Pottinger said.