Army Reveals Afghan Biometric ID Plan; Millions Scanned, Carded by May
2010-09-28 0:00

By Noah Shachtman |

Scanning prisoners’ irises is just Step 1. In Afghanistan, local and NATO forces are amassing biometric dossiers on hundreds of thousands of cops, crooks, soldiers, insurgents and ordinary citizens. And now, with NATO’s backing, the Kabul government is putting together a plan to issue biometrically backed identification cards to 1.65 million Afghans by next May.

The idea is to hinder militant movement around the country, and to keep Taliban infiltrators out of the army, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan commander Lt. Gen. William Caldwell tells Danger Room. “The system allows the Afghans to thoroughly screen applicants and recruits for any potential negative past history or criminal linkages, while at the same time it provides an additional measure of security at checkpoints and major facilities to prevent possible entrance and access by malign actors in Afghanistan,” Caldwell e-mails.

It’s a high-tech upgrade to a classic counterinsurgency move — simultaneously taking a census of the population, culling security forces of double agents and cutting off guerrilla routes. (Plus, bombs and weapons can be swabbed for fingerprints to build files on insurgent suspects.) Gen. David Petraeus, now commander of the Afghan war effort, relied heavily on biometrics during his time in command of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Twenty to 25 Afghans a week are currently caught in the biometric sweep, military officials estimate. That number could grow significantly in the months to come. The “population registration division” of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior is “embarking on a program to develop, print and distribute biometrically enabled national ID cards,” e-mails Col. Craig Osbourne, the director of NATO’s Task Force Biometrics.

President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign on. But the “Afghan Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has already secured a $122 million contract for the database development and printing of cards in support of that plan,” Osbourne adds.

There are all kinds of hurdles to the plan, however. At the moment, Afghanistan’s two main biometric databases don’t talk to one another, limiting their effectiveness. The Karzai government has blocked previous efforts to extend the biometric dragnet. And in a country where the rule of law is more of a suggestion, there’s a risk that a storehouse of irises and fingerprints and faces could one day be abused.

Right now, there are two primary biometric projects underway in Afghanistan. One is run by NATO forces, and uses the fingerprint readers, iris scanners and digital cameras of the Biometric Automated Toolset (.ppt) to capture information on detainees and other “persons of interest.” The U.S. military says it has assembled 410,000 of these biometric dossiers in the past year-and-a-half.

The second project, the Afghan Automated Biometric Identification System (AABIS), run by the Afghan government, collects data on Afghan National Army and police recruits. Fingerprints, irises and faces are all scanned into Crossmatch Jump Kits. The kits are periodically brought back to Kabul, where the data is dumped into the AABIS mainframe — and cross-checked with biometric records from the Afghan National Detention Facility, Kabul Central Police Command, Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan and FBI prison enrollments from Kabul, Herat and Kandahar.

Along with a new battery of drug tests, AABIS “helps create an environment where the Afghans can hold personnel accountable for their actions,” Caldwell e-mails. “This combination of capabilities helps ensure the Afghans are able to continue providing quality recruits, while progressing towards a professionalized force capable of sustaining itself and protecting the people of Afghanistan.”

The problem is, the two systems don’t link up, one American official tells Danger Room. NATO forces could capture an insurgent — and the Afghan database would have no note of it. Which makes it an imperfect screener for militants, at best.

The Afghan system now covers 248,768 people. Hundreds of thousands more will follow them, if a plan by NATO and Afghan officials moves forward. A thousand locals are being recruited to take their countrymen’s fingerprints and scan their irises — and dump them into AABIS as the start of a national ID. The goal is to get 1.65 million enrolled by May 2011.

“This plan was briefed to and endorsed by the Afghan Senior Security Shura last Monday,” Osbourne says. “The population registration division has been producing ID cards for decades, and Afghans recognize and support their efforts for such a system. Coalition forces operating in the battle space will still collect biometric data on detainees and those suspected of insurgent actions or support, but otherwise all collections are voluntary.”

In a sense, the program is a turnaround for the administration of President Karzai. It wasn’t long ago that he shut down a major biometric project in Kandahar.

At the height of the Iraq insurgency, U.S. forces walled off cities like Fallujah. The only way to get in or out was to get an ID card. And the only way to get an ID card was to get an iris scan.

Earlier this summer, Afghan troops under NATO supervision briefly tried a similar approach. The system enrolled 20,000 residents of Kandahar at three checkpoints.

But the program was abruptly pulled when Karzai saw a picture of one of the biometric checkpoints in Newsweek, U.S. military officials tell Danger Room. Karzai declared the scanning to be an infringement of Afghan sovereignty, and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

NATO military officials are working with Afghan ministries to get Karzai to approve a national biometric ID. But if they succeed, it triggers another concern.

In Iraq, there are worries that the kind of information assembled in Fallujah could one day be used to target the government’s political enemies, or help contribute to sectarian conflict.

“This database,” Lt. Col. John Velliquette, an Army biometrics manager in Iraq, tells Danger Room, “becomes is a hit list if it gets in the wrong hands.” A parallel case could be made for Afghanistan.

So far, there’s been no evidence of abuse of the system — in either country. Osbourne says part of that $122 million contract for a national ID “includes provisions for information assurance under the guidance of the U.S. Agency for International Development.” But things in Afghanistan often take unexpected turns, despite the international community’s best efforts to keep them on track.

Photo: Staff Sgt. William Tremblay/U.S. Army

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