Analysis: Nepotism, ethnic favoritism impede Afghan spy agency

NDS spokesman Lutfullah Mashal

Hundreds of Taliban insurgents were involved in the unprecedented attacks that shook the Afghan capital Kabul and several other key locations around the country last week. And yet not a single Afghan or foreign intelligence operative appeared to have the slightest idea the attacks were coming. No wonder that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of many government officials who openly admitted that the “infiltration in Kabul and other provinces [was] an intelligence failure for us”. But why is Afghan intelligence so notoriously unreliable? The answer to this question is complicated, but according to an excellent analysis piece published this week in The Christian Science Monitor, much of it centers on two chronic issues that permeate Afghan society: nepotism and ethnic favoritism. When one speaks of Afghan intelligence, one mainly refers to the National Directorate for Security (NDS), an institution established by the United States, and funded almost entirely by Washington. The roots of the NDS are in the Northern Alliance, the indigenous Afghan opposition to the Taliban, which fought alongside the United States during the 2001 invasion of the Central Asian country. Like most other institutions in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance is composed largely by members of a single tribe, namely Tajiks, many of whom are from Afghanistan’s Panjshir province. As a result, when Washington set up the NDS, it selected its leadership from among the Panjshir Tajiks. They, in turn, relied on their local networks to staff the newly formed organization. As a result, today around 70 percent of the NDS’ staff “hail from Panjshir or have ties with the Northern Alliance”, says The Monitor. This helps establish rapport and ethnic unity among the institution’s 30,000-strong employee community; but it has virtually eliminated the NDS’ ability to collect intelligence from among rival ethnic groups and factions, including the Haqqani Network and the nearly all-Pashtun Taliban. The Monitor article quotes one anonymous NDS officer who says that the agency does “not know anything about the South or the East. They don’t know how Pashtuns talk or move”. Other NDS insiders complain that they work in an institutional environment where “talent and professionalism are seldom rewarded”. This has been openly admitted by former NDS Director Amrullah Saleh, who wrote recently that 90 percent of leading officials in Afghanistan’s security and intelligence community attained their positions “through political appointments”. The paper quotes Afghan parliamentarian General Nazifa Zaki, who claims that “there are a lot of people who came into the NDS through political ties, [while] “professional people who have worked for many years in intelligence […] are now sidelined”. The Monitor article says “there are signs of progress” (without providing any evidence of it) but adds that restructuring the operational culture and deficient organization of the NDS “will take time”.


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