South Asia

Afghanistan's dysfunctional security agencies

The Kabul Intercontinental during the attack on it in June 2011
Image caption The attack on the Intercontinental

As Nato begins handing over security control, Afghans are increasingly relying on their own forces to fight the Taliban and other insurgents. But a spate of recent militant attacks show Afghan security agencies failing to work with each other, reports the BBC's Bilal Sarwary.

"The enemy wants to carry out a destructive act. It wants to attack the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Ensure security in and around the hotel. Attack is imminent."

This chilling piece of intelligence was part of a report that Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) - the country's main intelligence agency - says it passed on to the interior ministry just days before the Intercontinental Hotel was attacked by nine heavily-armed insurgents.

Balkh provincial Governor Attah Mohammad Noor and NDS deputy head Hasamudin Hasam had left the hotel only 20 minutes before the attack, the BBC has learned.

It took Afghan and international forces more than six hours to end the attack. More than 24 people were killed, including 11 civilians, four police and nine insurgents - 10 others were wounded.

'Vague and unspecific'

The NDS says the intelligence was specific enough for the police to have prevented the attack, but senior officials in the interior ministry deny ever receiving the report.

They told the BBC, on condition of anonymity, that if the NDS had such information, it should have taken steps to protect the hotel instead of waiting for the police to act.

"The intelligence was vague and not specific," a senior interior ministry official said. "I get 20 reports from them every day. It is rarely specific."

The Intercontinental attack is one example of what appears to be a systematic failure of co-ordination between Afghanistan's security institutions.

The NDS is a remnant of Khad, the notorious spy agency during communist rule in Afghanistan. Trained by the former Soviet KGB, Khad is accused of torturing and killing thousands of Afghans.

However, since the fall of the Taliban, the NDS has been seen as one of the most capable and reliable institutions in Afghanistan, according to a Western intelligence officer.


The spy agency says it has thousands on its pay roll.

Image caption Concerns over intelligence comes as parts of the country are being handed over to Afghan security

Western countries have invested heavily in the NDS, as they have in Afghanistan's fledgling army and its police force.

"We count on it," the Western intelligence officer said. "But there is often a lack of co-ordination."

The intel is sometimes wrong, he added.

Western officials say the key challenge is for the different agencies to differentiate between good and bad intelligence.

Officials at the interior ministry admit that intelligence gathering is a weak point and that it can often come too late or be too vague.

''If we win the intelligence war, then we will win this war. Right now, we are fighting to win it,'' the senior official said.

It is not just the Kabul hotel attack which has prompted concern over intelligence gathering.

The spy agency was castigated by parliamentarians and ordinary Afghans after a brazen prison break in Kandahar earlier this year, in which dozens of Taliban field commanders and fighters managed to escape.

But addressing a press conference after the jail break, the head of NDS Directorate 17, Gen Tahir Mohamand, said the agency had done its job.

"I have with me papers, records. We warned the police and prison authorities. Not once, not twice, but 10 times," the general said.

'Enemy's movements'

Interior ministry spokesperson Sidiq Sediqi denies intelligence gathering is not up to scratch.

Image caption The Haqqani network's stronghold is on the Afghan-Pakistan border

"Because of good co-ordination [between the security agencies] we managed to put down the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel. We have no problems. There was good co-ordination," he told the BBC.

However Mr Sediqi was rather vaguer on whether the ministry had received specific intelligence warning of an imminent attack.

NDS spokesman Lutfullah Mashal also agues that there is "good co-ordination" between the security agencies, which was why he says the attack on the hotel was speedily dealt with.

According to Mr Mashal, the spy agency regularly shares intelligence with senior Afghan officials in Kabul and especially in the provinces.

"We have our infiltrators inside the enemy, we have our sources - human and technical. So we always share intelligence about the enemy's movements," he said.

But he admitted that intelligence is sometimes ignored by provincial officials.

Many officials in the NDS and interior ministry have recently spoken of a huge communication gap between the different security wings of the Afghan government.

"I never got any intelligence that specific about weapons in rooms [of the Intercontinental]," a counter terrorism official with the interior ministry said.

"If the NDS had all this information, then it should have taken action as the NDS also has an office in the hotel building."

Former deputy interior minister Abdul Hadi Khalid is at pains to defend the police: "The job of the police is to fight crime and not heavily armed insurgents."

But he wants a new approach in the war.

"Our intelligence services should get to the heart of the enemy. Infiltrate them like they have infiltrated us."

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