US funded intelligence center struggles in Khyber region: Washington Post
January 12, 2009, 11:18 am
ted at the foot of a towering mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, the $3 million Khyber Border Coordination Center was billed as a first-of-its-kind experiment in intelligence sharing among Pakistani, Afghan and US-led coalition forces when it opened here on a sunny day last spring. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony March 29, Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, then the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, called the U.S.-funded center's opening "a giant step forward in cooperation, communication and coordination." The ceremony, which featured an Army band playing Dixieland, a lavish Afghan feast and upbeat declarations by generals, marked a seemingly historic moment for Afghanistan and Pak, which have skirmished over their mutual border for more than 100 years. But more than nine months later, U.S. officials at the Khyber Center say language barriers, border disputes between Pakistani and Afghan field officers, and longstanding mistrust among all three militaries have impeded progress. "It's a very useful facility, but it's just going to take a while before they understand what cooperation entails," said Dan Villareal, a military contractor who has worked at the center since its inception. The stated mission of the center, the first of six slated to open on both sides of the 1,500-mile-long border, is to use the latest technology and intelligence-gathering techniques to track insurgent movements in areas now largely controlled by al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban forces. U.S. military officials have also said they hoped the experimental three-way collaboration would help secure the beleaguered transit route for NATO supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan. In the past two months alone, Taliban fighters have mounted about a dozen raids along the route near the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, bringing commercial traffic across the border to a near-standstill several times. Two weeks ago, the crossing here at Torkham was closed for three days while the Pakistani army conducted an operation aimed at halting insurgent raids on convoys. "If we can limit the enemy activity because of expanded cooperation on both sides, it will not only give freedom of movement in terms of supplies across the border but enhance trade, which will improve the economies of both countries," said U.S. Army Col. Barrett F. Lowe, the officer charged with expanding the Khyber Center's operations. About three months after the joint center opened, Pakistani and Afghan border-patrol officers at two nearby observation posts exchanged fire after a minor dispute got out of hand. Such skirmishes remain a regular occurrence near the Khyber Pass, where the border drawn by the British in 1893 is considered by both sides to be largely imaginary. Meanwhile, construction of a second station to the southeast has been delayed by the insurgent attacks along Afghanistan's main highway. The center is scheduled to open in March, but recent photos indicate it is only partially built. Last month, a marauding band kidnapped two Pakistani officers from the Khyber Center's intelligence-gathering team as they traveled home on leave. The two officers remain in captivity, prisoners of a resurgent cottage industry of abductions in Pakistan's tribal areas. They stand little chance of release unless their families can come up with a combined ransom of about $70,000. The Dec. 7 kidnapping has also complicated relations with a reluctant Pakistani military. "It's disturbing," Lowe said. "Their kidnapping -- that potentially could have an impact on the Pakistani military's ability to support this effort. They have to think now about how they will get their officers here and whether they can come and go safely." In an interview in late November, Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schlosser, the U.S. commander of coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan, said intelligence-sharing among Pakistani, Afghan and NATO forces has improved but has a long way to go. "It is still, in my mind, in its nascent form," Schlosser said of the Khyber Center. Although the center opened in March, it wasn't fully staffed and operational until late July. Logistical problems, political wrangling and the Pakistani military's reluctance were the main reasons for the delay, according to people familiar with the center's operations. Officials at the center say the Pakistani military frequently ignores or denies requests for specific information about insurgent activities in Pakistan's tribal areas. "There's a hell of a lot of lip service. The Pakistanis talk a good game but don't play a good game," said a U.S. officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of military and diplomatic sensitivities. Meanwhile, the area experienced a sharp increase in insurgent attacks. From January 2007 to November 2007 there were at least 431 insurgent attacks along the border. In the same period last year, there were 625 attacks, an increase of 45 percent, according to U.S. military data. U.S. intelligence experts say the attacks started increasing in 2006, after the Pakistani military struck peace deals with Taliban fighters in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. The brief respite gave insurgent leaders a chance to devise a strategy aimed at chipping away at NATO's lifeline through the Khyber Pass. Last year, officers at the center watched as that strategy unfolded only a few miles from where they sat. The center, occupying two hangar-style barracks, is located next to a small U.S. military fort at the foot of a barren mountain ridge. The two-lane highway that serves as the main transit route for NATO supplies is clearly visible from the well-fortified guard towers. Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. officers share not only intelligence there, but also meals and very close quarters. Much of the officers' working day is spent in an airy control room equipped with five large television and computer screens. While the officers quietly tap away at their keyboards, one of the big screens shows constant feeds from the al-Jazeera news channel. At the back of the room, several U.S. officers man a bank of flat-screen computer monitors and phones marked "Secret." Another large screen shows real-time video footage taken by the U.S. Predator drones that move in ghostly waves along the border. There are plans to expand the center to make better use of such intelligence, Lowe said. For now, the center has no officers who are expert in analyzing the data sent back by the Predators. "None of us has the background to be able to interpret what's on the screen," said Villareal, the military contractor. "So it's useful and looks impressive, but it's just like watching TV." Afghan and Pakistani officers at the center were barred from talking to a reporter during a recent visit. But a glance around the room showed several of them primarily engaged in watching a wrestling match on one of the big TV screens and playing computer solitaire. Their U.S. counterparts, meanwhile, sorted through e-mails from the CIA and other agencies about insurgent activities. None of the U.S. officers at the Khyber Center speaks Dari, Pashto or Urdu, the local languages. Every decision and bit of information must be conveyed through an interpreter and often through the separate Afghan and Pakistani military command structures. Afghan and Pakistani interpreters sometimes hold back details, Villareal said. But, Lowe said, the addition of more U.S. staff and technology could help by reducing insurgent attacks and as a result defusing tensions between the Afghans and Pakistanis. "In this environment, as long as they're talking, then they're not shooting at each other, and that's success," he said.
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