Advisers face reality checks along Afghan border
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 10, 2013
FORWARD OPERATING BASE TORKHAM, Afghanistan — It’s 9 o’clock in the morning and the passport office at Afghanistan’s busiest border crossing is dark and empty.
Afghan Border Police officers lounge in the darkness, waiting for the electrical power that often doesn’t come on until mid-morning, and shuts off hours before the border closes in the evening.
State-of-the-art biometric systems designed to collect and match fingerprints, photos and other personal data sit idle as hundreds of men, women and children pour across the oft-disputed border with Pakistan.
When the power finally comes on, the passport office remains empty, except for the police officers sitting at their desks, despite the crowds milling outside. Not until a dozen American soldiers and advisers enter the office do the police spring into action, pulling people aside to check their passports and enter their information into the electronic system. Two minutes later, it’s standing room only.
Officials say they are working to solve the power supply issue, but back at Forward Operating Base Torkham, just a few miles from the border, Company D commander Capt. Mark Searles says motivation among Afghan forces is also a challenge.
“We see that quite a bit… It’s just a constant fight that we have there,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and a little bit frustrating because we recognize that the answer to our eventual withdrawal is a fully capable and willing local force.”
FOB Torkham, which houses troops from the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, supports a border security task force, as well as a center designed to coordinate among NATO, Afghanistan and Pakistan forces.
Afghan Border Police Capt. Sediaremah Abdul Rahimzai, who oversees the passport office, said the biometric system works well and helps him better secure the border, but he faces daily challenges when people crossing the border make excuses for why they can’t be entered into the system. Such excuses often include illness or not having a passport, he said.
At Torkham, passport checks are often handled the way other countries might handle customs controls. Afghan passport officers at the gate pull aside a certain number of individuals at a time to check their passports, while others may pass without being asked to show any identification.
Although the nascent Afghan police force may not yet be living up to expectations, they must operate a border post still wracked by violence. Their job also includes law enforcement duties, which must be conducted in this combat environment, including American drone strikes in Pakistan and heightened tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.
And they boast some major achievements. Just down the road from FOB Torkham, they successfully seized more than 26,000 rounds of 5.56 mm American ammunition being hauled by a donkey train headed toward Pakistan, less than two miles from the border.
Such ammunition is only used by Afghan National Army and coalition forces, so as soon as American soldiers saw the pile of rounds, they knew it was either stolen or illegally sold to someone who likely intended to use it against its original owners.
When American investigators from the Army and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrived at the police base to inspect the ammunition, they were fully prepared to take fingerprints and DNA samples.
Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, when an Afghan police commander informed the investigators that the ammunition had been handled by dozens of his officers. The Americans cataloged the lot numbers, and counted and photographed the rounds, but they quickly gave up any plans of more advanced investigation.
“When you’re worried about getting blown up, you just grab it and run,” said NCIS investigator Solomon Hagedon. “This is a combat zone, so the traditional rules of evidence collection often don’t apply.”
Still, international advisers say the border police continue to improve. Searles said most higher ranking Afghan border police understand the importance of securing the border, and are working with coalition forces to help better train the rank-and-file police officers.
But as long as the border remains a major flash point, NATO advisers say they expect the coalition will have a presence here long after combat troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014.
Army Spc. Kristopher Gardner helps sort through more than 26,000 rounds of American 5.56 mm ammunition seized by Afghan Border Police from a donkey train headed toward Pakistan. Investigators' attempts to collect fingerprints and DNA samples from the rounds were stymied by contamination.
JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES