U.S. Intelligence Puts New Focus on Afghan Graft

by THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT

June 12, 2010

WASHINGTON — The military’s intelligence network in Afghanistan, designed for identifying and tracking terrorists and insurgents, is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption that is rampant across Afghanistan’s government, security forces and contractors, according to senior American officials.

Military intelligence officers in Afghanistan are scouring seized documents and interrogating captured fighters and facilitators — but not just to learn about insurgent networks that plan attacks, plant roadside explosives and send out suicide bombers.

They are also looking for insights on how to combat a widespread perversion of authority by Afghan power brokers, which senior officials describe as “a plague” on the American-backed effort to build an effective and competent government and win the support of the Afghan people.

It is a remarkable but perilous military undertaking in a sovereign country, particularly in a place of conspiracy theories and constantly shifting alliances, where it is hard to know who can be trusted and where many people are historically skeptical of what they see as intrusiveness by outsiders, this time by the Americans.

The United States and its NATO allies may find themselves following leads that point to the top levels of government, because even close family members of President Hamid Karzai have been accused of engaging in the drug trade and enriching themselves with lucrative business deals. American contractors are among those accused of wrongdoing, and some in the United States government have been known to look the other way rather than upset Mr. Karzai.

The new military anti-corruption effort is a joint operation with Afghan law enforcement and judicial authorities. But on Saturday, The New York Times reported that some in Afghanistan, including one of Mr. Karzai’s former top intelligence aides, complained that the Afghan president himself was increasingly mistrustful of the United States and had talked of cutting his own agreement with the Taliban.

A central goal in the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, which is commanded by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is to win over the country’s population. That goal requires persuading the Afghan people to support the central government in Kabul and not shadow Taliban governments that exist in many provinces. To that end, anti-corruption efforts are every bit as important as killing or capturing militants, if not more so, according to senior officers involved in the effort.

“Where once our whole network was to capture and kill Al Qaeda and the Taliban, now the information we’re trying to get is the information for the networks of corruption and government and influence,” said a senior American military officer in Afghanistan.

“The intelligence we were focused on before was just to drive the next target we were going to get,” he said. “Now our targeting is much more focused on the government: How do you control for corruption? How does the process work for security contracts?”

Top NATO officials in Afghanistan drove the creation of a new anti-corruption task force last October, and it has already succeeded in forcing out a number of provincial security officials suspected of significant wrongdoing, many of whom have been brought to trial.

The task force, whose senior NATO leader is Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the alliance’s director of military intelligence in Afghanistan, gathered information that allowed Afghan officials to arrest, try and convict a border police commander who was pocketing salaries from ghost personnel on his payroll as well as stealing money meant for widows of officers killed in action.

Other provincial-level police chiefs have been removed from their posts because they were involved in corrupt activities uncovered by the task force’s intelligence operations, although they were not brought to trial because of a lack of the kind of evidence that could be presented in Afghan courts, officials said.

These actions, while still limited in scope, have served as “a shot across the bow” of the security ministries, said another senior American military officer.

“The word is out that we are going to continue to look at corrupt behavior in the police and that we have an effort under way,” the officer said. “In a counterinsurgency fight, we cannot afford to have abusive behavior by police, and we cannot afford to have corrupt behavior by police.”

That officer, like other the others who discussed the effort, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of military intelligence operations.

The military is focused on battling corruption at the local and provincial levels in ways that illustrate a commitment to good governance for the population to see in their day-to-day lives. Yet, Pentagon officials acknowledge that this localized effort must be supported by a more senior-level, political decision by the Obama administration on how to deal with corruption at the uppermost echelons of the Afghan government. American military officials have worked closely with Afghan law enforcement authorities and developed information that local prosecutors have used in newly established trials at the detention center for detainees accused of corruption or drug charges. Ultimately, this kind of information could also be used to help the Afghan government weed out corrupt governors.

American officers are cognizant that some Afghans may make false accusations to use the anti-corruption effort to take down political opponents. The antidote for such abuse, officials say, is to demand multiple sources of information, with multiple sources of confirmation, before making taking action.

“It’s a lesson we learned from Iraq — to ‘mass’ intelligence against one individual,” said the senior American officer. “We mass the analysts, we mass the interrogators and we mass the exploiters of the information before making a move.”

Weeding out corruption is not the only significant adjustment of military intelligence activities in Afghanistan as the Defense Department shifts the bulk of its attention from Iraq.

In Iraq, a relatively well-educated and high-tech society with a similarly well-organized insurgency, American troops seized computer hard drives and cellphones that provided a trove of information about militant networks, including detailed accounting of foreign fighters flowing into the country.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, there is a much lower level of technical sophistication with far fewer computers, hard drives and other communications equipment to exploit. In addition, insurgent networks in Afghanistan are far more fractured and decentralized than in Iraq.

More than 90 percent of detainees from recent security sweeps in Afghanistan are from their local areas, and are not foreign fighters or insurgents from other districts within Afghanistan. Thus, they have little information about the broader insurgent network that can be exploited.

Interrogations of these recent detainees yield a “good news, bad news” version of events, officials said.

According to senior American officers, many detainees expressed deep frustration at the Taliban leadership in exile inside Pakistan. These detainees — even the group aged 35 to 55 and who are in leadership ranks of the provincial insurgency — tell interrogators that they are short of money and tired of taking orders from leaders who remain at a safe distance from the fight.

At the same time, these detainees still express a lack of confidence in the Kabul government, and remain unwilling to reintegrate and stop fighting, officials said.

The troop increase ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama has brought with it increases in the intelligence-gathering and exploitation effort, as well. The American military operation in Afghanistan is operating with significantly increased numbers of sophisticated surveillance aircraft and a growing number of analysts to exploit the widening stream of information.

The number of American military and civilian interrogators has doubled since last summer, to about 75 people, a senior military officer said. And “fusion cells” — teams of people who gather and assess information from the battlefield to quickly pinpoint a likely target for a follow-on raid — have been pushed from the large headquarters in Kabul out to military outposts across the country.