Afghans Build Security, and Hope to Avoid Infiltrators
KABUL, Afghanistan — For someone who had once joined an insurgent group, and whose family was tied to a top Taliban commander, Akmal had a strikingly easy path into the Afghan National Army.
The district governor who approved his paperwork had never met him. A village elder who was supposed to vouch for him — as required by recruiting mandates — did little more than verify his identity.
No red flags went up when, after just six weeks in the army, he deserted. He returned more than three months later with the skimpiest of explanations and was allowed to rejoin. “I told them I got sick,” Akmal recalled.
Now Akmal, 18, who like many Afghans goes by one name, could face the death penalty for his admitted part in a suicide bombing on May 22 that killed six people on the grounds of the Afghan national military hospital.
He also helped in another suicide attack in February on a shopping mall in the capital, while he was absent without leave from the army, he said in an interview with The New York Times after his capture last month.
President Obama’s announcement last week of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan made clear that, more than ever, the onus is on Afghans to take responsibility for their own security. But the story of how Akmal went from jihadist to Afghan soldier and back again demonstrates the many problems that still plague the Afghan army and police force. These include the danger of Taliban infiltration, the divided loyalties of many recruits and even officers, and the sometimes explosive tensions between them and the foreign forces who are supposed to train them.
Interviews with intelligence officers, family members and other conspirators supported Akmal’s account. The Taliban never asked Akmal to join the Afghan National Army, he said. But once inside, he proved a useful tool. So have many others, NATO data show.
In the past two and a half years, 47 NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghan soldiers or police officers. Many of those deaths were the result of arguments that turned violent. But infiltrators are suspected in some of the cases, including one in which an Afghan soldier detonated a vest at an Afghan military base and another when a police officer killed the police chief at the Kandahar police headquarters.
As NATO hurries to build an Afghan security force of nearly 400,000 members by the end of 2014, Afghan military and intelligence officials concede that the task of screening the more than 8,000 army and police recruits who enlist each month is monumental.
“The army cannot do investigations for each individual person who joins,” said Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry.
This month, intelligence officials arrested a dozen people within the Defense and Interior Ministries, including an army colonel and a major, accusing them of aiding in an attack on the Defense Ministry headquarters in Kabul in April that left two soldiers dead.
Officials with the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan say there is no evidence to suggest that infiltration is widespread. Still, they began bringing 80 counterintelligence officers and specialists to Afghanistan this month to enhance the recruit screening process.
“There’s a major effort to turn Afghans once they’re already inside the security forces, as well as a push to infiltrate existing militants into the ranks,” said a senior United States military officer who is helping to oversee the influx.
The Taliban use a range of tactics, including paying relatives who are sympathetic to the insurgents, to lure Afghan security forces into cooperating with them. “They’re even trying cold-calling on their cellphones to see who might be interested,” said the American officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Akmal enlisted in the military for the same reason many people do: to escape poverty. But his heart remained with the insurgency. Though he was offered money, about $290, to help in the hospital attack, he considered it supplemental income and not a motivating factor, he said.
His background offered hints of trouble. He grew up in Shakar Dara, a small farming district north of Kabul that at one time had been a hotbed of Taliban activity.
His father had served under Anwar Dangar, a top Taliban commander, Akmal said. His uncle was Mr. Dangar’s brother-in-law, though the uncle said in an interview that he had cut ties to the Dangar family.
That uncle raised Akmal and his older brother from the time they were young, after their mother died and their father disappeared. But last year, he kicked them out.
With nowhere to go, his brother joined the police. Akmal went the opposite direction, following a friend named Waris — Mr. Dangar’s nephew — to eastern Afghanistan, where they joined Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an insurgent group. Frustrated that the group was not doing much fighting, Akmal returned to Kabul a month later and, desperate for work, joined the army.
Under guidelines established in September 2009, all army and police recruits must undergo criminal background checks, drug screening and biometric scans as part of an eight-step vetting process. But in a country where computers are rare and many criminal matters are handled through the informal justice system, background checks are difficult. So a key step requires that two village elders or guarantors sign letters testifying to the recruit’s “identity and motivation to serve.”
But both those who signed Akmal’s letters said they knew little about him.
“All I do is something like, ‘I confirm that this guy lives in this place and he is the son of this man,’ ” said Malik Mohammad Din, the head elder in Akmal’s village. “And then I stamp it and sign it.”
He added that he did not know Akmal had ever joined the insurgency, or he would not have signed. The district governor, Mehrabudin, said, “I sign the letters because the elder knows that person well and so I give my approval.”
Akmal was assigned to the 53rd Health Battalion and began training as a combat medic at the national military hospital in Kabul. He shared his insurgent sympathies with no one. But told his unit would be sent to the front lines after its training, he quickly deserted. “I didn’t want to fight the Taliban and kill them,” he said.
By then, his friend Waris, with the help of Afghan associates in Pakistan, was plotting a suicide bombing of Kabul City Center, a shopping mall. Akmal agreed to help stake out the target, instructing the bomber where to go to kill the most foreigners.
The plan called for the bomber to blow himself up deep inside the crowded mall, but security guards stopped him at the entrance and he set the vest off, killing himself and two guards.
Afterward, Akmal fled briefly to Pakistan, but returned to Kabul a month later. Finding himself homeless again, he rejoined the army, saying he had been hospitalized with an infectious disease to explain his absence.
That he was allowed back was troubling but not unusual, Afghan and NATO officials said. Afghan soldiers often leave without permission to help their families. In fact, there is no penalty for desertion, according to the Defense Ministry.
“There is not yet a culture in the military that says you can’t go away and do harvests and come back,” said Maj. Gen. D. Michael Day, deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.
A few weeks after Akmal rejoined, Waris called with a new target: the national military hospital. Akmal’s job would be to supply an army uniform and arrange for the bomber to get past the guards at the heavily fortified complex. Akmal called his brother, the police officer, who is also now in custody, for help.
Two days before the attack, Akmal went to the home of another of the conspirators in Shakar Dara and met the suicide bomber, a burly Pakistani, for the first time. That night Akmal taught him how to walk like a soldier and gave him his army uniform and boots. As a final preparation, they rigged a grenade fuse to the suicide vest.
The next morning, Waris and Akmal escorted the bomber by taxi into Kabul. Inside a restroom at the Pul-e-Khesthi Mosque downtown, the bomber changed into the uniform, the vest hidden underneath. Outside the hospital, where Akmal’s brother had arranged for the bomber to pass through, Akmal gave the bomber a cellphone and they left him.
A few minutes later, Akmal called. The bomber told him he was seated under a tree outside a hospital dining tent, where dozens of medical trainees were just sitting down to lunch. As Akmal and Waris’s taxi weaved through downtown traffic, a report of a suicide blast at the hospital blared over the radio.
Akmal dialed the phone again. This time, no one answered.
Source: New York Times