Weak Intelligence Capabilities Hinder Afghan Mission
At the height of combat missions in Afghanistan, the U.S. military occupied nearly 825 military outposts throughout the war-ravaged region. That number now stands at roughly 20. The outposts served an extensive intelligence-gathering network, using surveillance balloons and wide-range signals intelligence collection operations. The rapid drawdown of these facilities following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the region created a black hole of information, with Afghan forces struggling to fill the gap.
Afghan forces require a robust intelligence collection and targeting capability if they want to turn back the tide of a reinvigorated Taliban insurgency, which has occupied more territory since its collapse following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Currently, Afghanistan relies on a fledgling air force struggling to keep aircraft in the skies and lacking any precision strike capability to target Taliban and ISIS commanders.
Aging Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, provided by Russia and India, and the MD-530, a two-man light attack helicopter similar to the U.S. Kiowa Warrior, comprise Afghanistan’s air force. The nation lacks a dedicated fixed-wing, light attack aircraft capable of providing close air support to ground forces and delivering precision strike GPS-guided munitions—until the recent delivery of the A-29 Super Tucano.
Resolute Support Mission commander Gen. John F. Campbell, USA, described the A-29 as a potential “game changer” for Afghan forces. It is slated to serve as a dedicated close air support platform for the Afghan forces struggling to hold back the Taliban.
The aircraft can be retrofitted with GPS guided munitions kits for precision strike capabilities, turning it into a precision targeting platform that will require an advanced intelligence network—one capable of providing real time intelligence to battlefield commanders. This would include a buildup of Afghanistan’s signals intelligence collection capabilities and the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, beyond the collection and triangulation of unencrypted VHF enemy communication that has helped Afghan forces locate enemy command and control nodes using the U.S. Army's Wolfhound intelligence gathering system.
Afghan intelligence forces need more advanced voice intercept capabilities and cross communication between the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and security forces in the field. The NDS not only suffers from an inability to share and disseminate actionable intelligence, but also is plagued by controversy of nepotism and its ethnic composition, made up of roughly 70 percent Panjshiris, a group affiliated with the Northern Alliance. The NDS’ ethnic composition poses challenges to the intelligence agency’s ability to infiltrate the Pashtun groups most likely affiliated with the continued insurgency in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s intelligence forces need a complete overhaul, which means a greater role by U.S. and NATO personnel. If Afghanistan wants to gain the upper hand in the coming fighting seasons, it needs its own robust targeting and collection capabilities against insurgent leaders on the battlefield. This includes precision strike capabilities, fixed wing close air support and an intelligence network capable of providing real-time actionable intelligence. Combined, these capabilities could be the game changer Afghan forces need to drive insurgent leaders to the negotiating table and boost the legitimacy of the Kabul based government.
Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a signals intelligence analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been published in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat and Small Wars Journal.