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Afghanistan's colossal intelligence failure

Close observers of Afghanistan are not likely to be surprised by recent allegations contained in a United Nations report that the Afghan National Security Directorate, the CIA's leading counterterrorism partner in South Asia, used whips and electric shocks to squeeze confessions out of suspected insurgent detainees. There are many ways to describe the directorate, or NDS as it is locally known, but a model of modern intelligence gathering and investigative efficiency is not one of them.

The report, which was quietly published on the website of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on Sunday, details a grim pattern of abuse and mistreatment in NDS prisons, and has put yet another dent in NDS's reputation at a time when the Afghan intelligence agency has never been more vulnerable. A key partner in the ongoing U.S. quest to contain transnational terrorism in South and Central Asia, NDS seems to have fallen on very hard times of late. Yet, few in Washington appear ready to confront the implications of NDS's downward spiral, a trend that seems to be accelerating as NATO marches toward the exit.

Last week, in an unprecedented show of force at least half a dozen Taliban fighters charged the gates of NDS headquarters in central Kabul, set off a suicide truck bomb and nearly blasted their way straight into the central nervous system of the Afghan intelligence agency. Some 32 civilians and security personnel were injured, and at least one NDS officer was killed on the spot. The attack might have been a little less demoralizing, however, had it not been for another purported Taliban assault in Kabul only a month earlier on an alleged NDS safe house in central Kabul that severely wounded the agency's well-known chief, Asadullah Khalid.

Both incidents beg a couple of questions that US, NATO and Afghan officials must all be asking themselves these days. First, just how safe is an Afghan intelligence agency safe house if a suicide bomber can gain entry and blow up the director of said intelligence agency? And, what do the latest assaults mean for NATO's transition out of the country? Like many things in Afghanistan, the answer is both simple and complex.

In the "simple" column: Asadullah Khalid, the newly ordained head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, probably has about as many enemies-personal and political-as he does friends. The December 6 attack on Khalid was the fifth in as many years. A two-time governor who served in the volatile and politically pivotal provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni, Khalid is a high roller with deep ties to mujahideen elites. His close associates run the gamut from hardcore Islamist conservative Afghan elites such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a cagey Pashtun commander who trained 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the late and legendary glad-handing southern brother of President Hamid Karzai.

Originally from Ghazni, a part of Afghanistan whose political, ethnic and religious paroxysms most closely parallel that of Florida, Khalid has counted coup in innumerable Afghan skirmishes spanning from the late 1980's to the present. Before President Karzai appointed him governor of Ghazni in 2002, Khalid served as head of NDS's provincial affairs department, and, several of his colleagues aver, was a first runner up to replace NDS's first director, Engineer Arif Sarwary when Sarwary stepped down in 2004. Instead, however, Karzai's inner circle eventually decided in 2005 that Khalid would be a better fit as governor of the president's home province, Kandahar.

It was in Kandahar that Khalid burnished a reputation for applying tough tactics to insurgent detainees after Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin alleged in testimony before the Canadian parliament in November 2009 that Khalid "personally tortured people" in a "dungeon" beneath his residence. Khalid has repeatedly denied the Canadian claims.

An ethnic Pashtun who also briefly served as minister of borders and tribal affairs before his appointment to NDS, Khalid has rejected similar allegations lodged in the British high court late last year. Khalid's denials aside, the most recent UN report on NDS torture practices would certainly seem to bear out a persistent pattern in the Afghan presidential palace of ignoring the obvious when it is convenient to do so.

In the "complex" column, a combination of hubris, insouciance, and vanity peculiar to many of Kabul's leading powerbrokers seems to have left Khalid especially vulnerable to violent fissures that are slowly rendering the once relatively effective Afghan intelligence agency ineffective and deeply compromised. Shortly before the bombing, Khalid coupled his denials of involvement in torture with equally vehement and venomous anti-Taliban rhetoric. During his testimony before Afghanistan's lower house of parliament before his appointment was confirmed in September, he alternately promised to exterminate Taliban outliers who refuse to accept Karzai's reconciliation terms and to support cross border operations into Pakistan in response to cross border shelling by the Pakistani army along the country's eastern border.

Khalid at one point purportedly took control of the CIA-backed Kandahar Strike Force, an aggressive local militia that was accused in 2010 by Afghan officials of assassinating the southern province's local police chief. Not long after his adventures in Kandahar, Khalid got involved in backing a controversial anti-Taliban uprising in Ghazni by provincial locals. Not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people in a tough neighborhood where the biggest house on the block is owned by the Pakistani military, a key supporter of the Afghan Taliban.

All of the above without doubt made the NDS chief especially susceptible. But there are two other critical factors that also played important roles in the attack on Khalid and the one-two-punch assault on NDS headquarters a month later. The first factor is factionalism. Factionalism within the official state Afghan security services has been a fact of life since they were created, but the phenomenon has worsened considerably since the onset of NATO's transition out of the country, and it has not left Afghanistan's chief intelligence agency untouched. Karzai has hired and fired a total of four NDS chiefs since 2002, including two within the last two years -- Khalid and Karzai's former personal security chief Rahmatullah Nabil. Each changing of the guard has been followed by purge and counter-purge of various networks affiliated with the new chiefs, leaving deep wells of mistrust, particularly between the largely non-Pashtun retinue of NDS officers allied with the Northern Alliance and Pashtuns affiliated either with Sayyaf, warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or others of a more Islamist bent.

Meanwhile, growing concerns among NDS leaders about increased infiltration of insurgents and Iranian and Pakistani double agents within their ranks has resulted in the reported arrests of a little more than a dozen NDS officials in the last year. These problems have been known for sometime but only really started turning heads at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) when in April 2012 the NDS failed to accurately analyze scads of tips about an impending attack on Kabul that was billed as one of the largest in the entire war. Conflicts between Pashtuns and the primarily Panjshiri Tajik dominated officer corps of the NDS have been cited as among the main reasons that information about that attack did not reach the right people at the right time in Kabul.

The second factor is Khalid's personal blind spot. At 43, Khalid cuts quite the dashing figure, and a one-time colleague of Khalid told me recently that he is known amongst his peers as having a predilection for a bit of flash and panache. Indeed, the guesthouse where the suicide bomber struck is situated in one of the tonier areas of the capital, and for several months before the incident in question and well before Khalid's appointment to NDS it was thought to be his personal playhouse. Neighbors recall hearing raucous music blaring out of the so-called NDS safe house Khalid had occupied and some distinctly recall the party until dawn atmosphere that the property frequently appeared to witness on Thursday nights. It is unclear whether the NDS chief was mixing business with pleasure at the house, but it is undeniable that his address, his presence and his seeming love of loud music was well known to most in the neighborhood well before the bombing.

Some of Khalid's associates also apparently knew in advance that the intelligence chief had been expecting a very special visitor the day of the bombing at the house.  As one longtime friend of Khalid's explained -- and several media outlets have reported -- the suicide bomber was a former Taliban prisoner who was allegedly acting as a messenger for Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura.

Like his one time colleague and elder statesman, former president and High Peace Council chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani, it seems Khalid could not resist the temptation to amplify his political profile as leading dealmaker cum peace negotiator. So when the freed Taliban prisoner arrived at Khalid's guest house cum safe house in the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul Khalid hardly expected the young man to come bearing a bomb in his underpants. But, much like Rabbani's assassination in October 2011, it was that close "personal touch," that dealt the big blow.

All this will, of course, require a lot of chewing over in the coming weeks and months ahead as NATO continues its accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. As for Khalid, he'll have plenty of time to think it through while he convalesces at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. And, at least he won't be lonely while he's meditating on his future and the prospects for NDS; Khalid has already received visits from President Obama, Leon Panetta, and, naturally his old friend Hamid Karzai in recent weeks.

And, perhaps while Khalid gets some rest and everyone's giving the latest turn of evens with NDS good long think, NATO and U.S. officials will finally sit down to hash out what to do next with America's top partner in the fight against terrorism in South and Central Asia. The White House in particular, might want to consider whether it can continue to tie America's fortunes to intelligence outfits like NDS without first figuring out how (and whether it's possible) to help governments like Karzai's to clean these agencies up. The Obama administration might also want to calculate the overall impact of its continued uncritical support for regimes that employ torture to ensure state security and how that might in the long-term hinder its efforts to unring the bell rung by a panicked Bush administration the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. If anything the most recent series of attacks in Kabul should have demonstrated to Washington, it is  time for a serious rollback and reset where NDS is concerned.

Candace Rondeaux lived and worked in Afghanistan for nearly five-years, first as the Afghanistan-Pakistan bureau chief for The Washington Post and more recently as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. She is a research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School in New York, and she is currently writing a political history of the Afghan security forces from 2001 to 2014.

JANGIR/AFP/GettyImages

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