Why Afghanistan's intelligence agency has a major blind spot

Afghanistan's intelligence service is dominated by men from one small province of the country. Has this hampered the Afghan government's ability to infiltrate the insurgency? 

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Men cross the Panjshir River on the rugged Panjshir Valley road in Afghanistan in this 2007 file photo.

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) has been sharply criticized for failing to thwart last week’s series of coordinated attacks in the capital and given the Taliban an effective talking point. 

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has placed the most weight for the attack intelligence failures on NATO but hasn’t absolved NDS of fault, “I'm not blaming NATO for this. I'm simply asking a question as to the efficiency of our intelligence gathering systems, whether these systems are working all right,” he said in an interview with CNN.

The president’s question is one shared by many Afghans. Though the NDS is relatively well-regarded as an intelligence gathering body, many complain that nepotism and ethnic favoritism – issues that affect most Afghan government offices – could dangerously hobble the capability of the Afghan intelligence agency.

“I would say that there are a lot of people who came into the NDS through political ties. I would also say that there are people not just from one tribe, but from many tribes related to one group,” says Gen. Nazifa Zaki, a member of parliament from Kabul who sits on the internal security commission. “There are professional people who have worked for many years in intelligence, but they are now sidelined.”

In a nation that is a patchwork of ethnic groups, many with their own languages, about 70 percent of those at NDS hail from Panjshir or have ties with the Northern Alliance, a group that once opposed the Taliban, say NDS officials.

Additionally, in a recent editorial for the BBC’s Persian language service Amrullah Saleh, a former NDS director wrote that 90 percent of the leadership for Afghanistan’s security forces, which includes NDS, attained their positions through political appointments.

The problem of having an ethnically homogenous spy organization comes into sharp relief against insurgent groups like the Taliban or Haqqani Network, which are almost exclusively Pashtun organizations and have only a handful of supporters from different ethnic groups. Prior to the most recent conflict, Pashtuns have been historic rivals of Panjshiris and the other ethnic groups that make up the Northern Alliance.

Just as the CIA has struggled to make inroads in the Middle East with a shortage of Arab-Americans and Arabic speakers – in 2009, only 22 percent of CIA personnel were not white and just 13 percent were proficient in a language other than English – NDS may face a similar problem in Afghanistan.

Despite a violent history between rival ethnic groups during Afghanistan’s civil war, the past 10 years have seen relative peace between ethnic groups here. Still, while communities mix regularly, barriers do exist.

A common complaint among Pashtuns is that other ethnic groups often fail to differentiate between Pasthuns belonging to the Taliban and the vast majority of Pashtuns who have no ties to the group.

“When they send Panjshiris to Pashtun areas the can’t do anything. They don’t know anything about the South or the East. They don’t know how Pashtuns talk or move. If you need information about a Pashtun, you should have a Pashtun to get that information. This is the problem,” says one NDS officer who is not authorized to speak with the media.

The NDS officer, himself a Pashtun, complained that several years ago he was approached by about 10 men who an insurgent organization had approached to recruit as suicide bombers. The men did not want to become bombers, but they were willing to go to the training camp and collect information for NDS. When he told his superiors, he says they ignored the lead.

Whether the incident was a product of ineffective leadership or Pashtun marginalization, incidents like these do not build confidence in the reputation for the NDS, when it comes to impartiality. Those inside the NDS say that having the organization dominated so heavily by Panjshiris, North Alliance supporters, and political appointees has created an environment where talent and professionalism are seldom rewarded.

“In the NDS or the military it should be really difficult to get a promotion, you shouldn’t get it overnight. You must work hard. But in the NDS someone will join today and tomorrow he will be a major. They just make fake papers and everything. Even if the guy is illiterate, he will become a major in the NDS,” says a former NDS officer who asked to be referred to as Gul Kaka because he is not authorized to speak with the media. “If they become higher ranking, they get more power, money, cars, and everything. They are misusing this.”

NDS officials say that the leadership is aware of the problems and is taking steps to create a more diverse staff. Even those who have voiced complaints, say that there are signs of progress, but add that it will take time.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report. 

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