Winning: Busted By Biometrics

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September 7, 2019: In 2017, under pressure from foreign aid donors, the Afghan Army completed the distribution of ID cards using biometric data to everyone in the Afghan Army. It took longer to get the national police to accept biometric ID but by early 2019 that was accomplished. As a result, the number of personnel in the security forces fell to 272,000, the lowest since 2015. That was not a problem because that was a more accurate number than ever before. The new ID cards eliminated 10,000 soldiers who did not exist and 25,000 police. Foreign aid donors, mainly the U.S., had paid for those “ghosts” and their commanders took their pay. The police were the worst and one thing that got the police to accept the new ID cards was the exposure of police corruption. The Interior Ministry fired two of their police commanders after some of their subordinates posted a video where police provided details of how their commanders stole supplies including food. After the videos appeared the commanders forced the police who made it post another one denying the accusations. But the public uproar had already prompted an investigation that verified the theft allegations.

This use of biometric data in government ID has been available in Afghanistan for over a decade but corrupt politicians and military commanders understood the impact of the biometric approach and until 2015 prevented full implementation. In 2015 a newly elected government allowed these biometric ID efforts to proceed. While a lot less corrupt and more accommodating than the previous Karzai government, the current Afghan government is still finds its bureaucracy paralyzed by the often conflicting demands by politicians representing a wide number of tribal, ethnic, religious and personal interests. It’s like herding cats, but cats with automatic weapons and very short tempers. The cats are also clever and adaptive. Unable to block or delay full implementation of the biometric system in the security forces, most offenders wisely shed their ghost soldiers before their troops received the cards. As a result, only a few thousand ghost soldiers were actually discovered and 80 percent of them were not the result of corruption as there is still incompetence and administrative failures at work. Meanwhile, there remains a lot of theft and bad behavior in the security forces that are the result of the traditional tolerance for corruption or bribes and intimidation by drug gangs. The ID cards only solved part of the problem. For the rest of the military budget, the Americans provided more financial controls, as part of their “advisory” role and at the very least there was a more accurate accounting of who had what.

Despite that continued corruption, the United States had built a large and growing library of data on actual and suspected terrorists and supporters as well as the Afghan population in general. This gave the anti-corruption forces (both local and foreign) a powerful tool. This was all the result of some major technical innovations that made it easier to gather and use biometric (fingerprints, iris, facial recognition, DNA) identification. After 2003 the U.S. developed tools that enabled combat troops to use biometrics on the battlefield. The main tool was initially called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit). This is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people anywhere and at any time. This included fingerprint scans, eye (iris) scans, and digital photos of suspects and later DNA samples. All this ended up in a master database, which eventually contained data on millions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, their supporters, and other "persons of interest." Troops in the field can carry part of that database with them in their SEEK kits, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and captured. This is what the American commandos did on the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid. While DNA tests are the best form of ID, if you have fingerprints, iris scans, and a photo you are nearly as certain. Even just fingerprints and the face scan/photo is pretty convincing. But often all you have is DNA and that’s where the portable DNA analyzers come in. These began arriving after 2011 but the basic SEEK level biometrics is still the main tool.

In Afghanistan, the government used SEEK kits to collect data on millions of Afghans so these people could be issued very secure (hard to fake) ID cards. For the government, this made it more difficult (or more time consuming and expensive) for criminals, Taliban, and Islamic radicals, in general, to infiltrate the government or just operate with impunity. The U.S. has long been collecting biometrics from those they arrested or otherwise encountered and wanted to positively identify. This data made it easier to figure out who was naughty and who was not. It only takes about two minutes per subject to use SEEK to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are quickly added to the master database. After several years of collecting data raiding parties knew to grab any guy who panics at the sight of the biometrics equipment coming out. The terrorists quickly realized that biometrics was bad news for them and they feared it. Combat troops now get training on how to use the biometrics gear and everyone now accepts that this stuff is a powerful weapon in the war against terrorists. Adapting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap but it's not one that will result in many press releases. But now the corrupt military and government officials have come to fear the biometrics as well.

Since the corrupt Karzai crew left office in 2015, there have been repeated anti-corruption efforts within the security forces. For a while, there seemed to be more commanders, including senior ones, who were no longer tolerant (or involved in) the more common corrupt practices. This includes the ancient paper (or “ghost”) soldiers scam where you report more soldiers on duty than you actually have and pocket the money sent to pay and maintain these non-existent troops. Another popular angle is simply stealing equipment or money provided to buy supplies for your troops. More soldiers, and especially the police, who are most often the victims, went public with the detailed reports of the damage this theft does. There was often no money for essentials, like fuel or spare parts for vehicles. Radios and other supplies “disappear” as commanders sell them and report them as stolen or damaged and disposed of. Subordinates reporting the details of these incidents put more heat on commanders to do right by their fighting men and the people they try to protect. But the corruption efforts of the drug gangs were relentless, as was pressure from family and tribe. More police and army commanders took the money and cooperated with the drug gangs and avoided the Taliban. But the corrupted government officials don’t want the Taliban running the government again, there are still vivid memories on how badly that worked for all concerned. So the Americans and other anti-corruption foreigners had to be endured because even working in a clean government is preferable to letting the religious fanatics and wealthy drug lords be in charge.

To keep the drug gangs and Taliban at bay, two-thirds of the $120 billion in reconstruction funds provided by the United States since 2002 has gone to train and maintain the security forces. After 2017 violence was up 5-10 percent a year nationwide. But in 2019, as peace talks with the Taliban got underway the overall casualties declined. That was because the Taliban increased their attacks, to about 2,000 a month, as the negotiations proceeded. That was actually less than in 2018 but more of those attacks were against the security forces. That meant the Taliban had to concentrate their attacks in Helmand, Badghis, Faryab, Herat, and Farah provinces, and let violence decline in the other 29 provinces. Even so, most of these attacks failed and did not result in any casualties. As a result, civilian casualties are down so far in 2019. Even so, about fifty people a day die from this drug and Taliban related violence.

Most of those killed are civilians, either caught in the crossfire or victims of violence by Islamic terrorists (mostly), Taliban or drug gang gunmen seeking to force locals to cooperate or at least stay out of the way. The Taliban (mostly) and drug gangs (who keep a low profile) suffer heavier losses than the security forces, largely because the outlaws are fighting each other as well as angry civilians and the army and police.

All this violence is, unfortunately, not unusual for the region known to most as Afghanistan. For most people living here “Afghanistan” is a secondary name for where they live. The primary name relates more to the tribe and very local geography. This whole nation thing was never widely accepted in this region and modern “Afghanistan” is something of a scam developed by many of the major tribes to deal with troublesome, and often heavily armed, foreigners. This time around the most dangerous foreign threat is chemical and financial. Heroin, made possible by a late 19th century German chemical process enables locals to convert opium, laboriously obtained from poppy plants, into much more valuable and portable heroin. While a few Afghans benefit financially (some spectacularly) from the heroin trade, nearly half the population in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran suffer the consequences of addiction, crime and social breakdown.

The drugs are winning as they usually do wherever they get established. Eventually, they get crushed but eventually can last a long time. The only thing that nearly everyone in Afghanistan can agree on is that the opium and heroin are bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) makes a living or gets rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider the biggest threat to be the drug gangs, which are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun. The Taliban want to create heroin producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia since the 1990s. No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned about tribal issues than anything else. Ten percent of the population, mostly living in the cities and often working with the foreigners, believes in Afghanistan the country. But beyond the city limits, it's a very different Afghanistan that is currently motivated by growing prosperity brought on by a decade relative peace and the persistent “traditional” violence. By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since the end of 2001.

Between economic growth, the growing heroin sales, and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age. This despite decades of war. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban have been trying to make a comeback ever since. The key Taliban financial resource, heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, remains the key to this war. Even many Pushtun do not like this development and more Taliban factions are negotiating some kind of settlement with the government or fighting within the organization to get their way. In other words, everything is pretty normal by Afghan standards.

Afghanistan has become politically unpopular in the West and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another issue foreign leaders are “kicking down the road” for someone else to deal with. The traditional local strongmen have noticed and Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and India are all trying to have some influence with their wild and erratic neighbor. The Taliban believed that the Afghan security forces would fall apart in 2015 because most of the foreign troops were gone and those that were left were not fighting. The expected Taliban victory did not happen but there was a lot more Taliban violence. The Afghan soldiers and police stood and fought, but took heavy casualties. The biggest losses are from so many young Afghans with some money (and often education and useful skills), want to get out of Afghanistan and go to somewhere less lethal than where they grew up. Many of those migrants left the security forces out of frustration at the corruption and generally poor performance of Afghan elected officials.

While Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, which it literally created in the early 1990s, the Pakistani military and intelligence service (ISI) promotes the idea that the cause of all the Islamic terrorism in the region is the United States, India, Israel and so on. Even most Pakistanis have a hard time with that explanation and elected officials in Pakistan are willing to work with their Afghan counterparts to better cope with Islamic terrorism throughout the region. The Pakistani politicians admit (usually privately) that their military is out of control and still supporting Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 


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