Intelligence agencies in Afghanistan are outstandingly failing to collect information of high value beneficial for Afghan’s domestic security. Deploying under-trained and inexperienced intelligence officers with limited knowledge of technical tools or key operational skills results in the collection of inadequate information [as well as inefficient] flow and management. With amateurish operational skills, these agents are unable to collect vital information for state security; some, even in the best of their experience, collect poor quality intelligence. Information collected from major known terror outfits and key government institutions could force policy makers and military leadership to make wrong decisions. The main objective of intelligence gathering is to maintain a swift flow of information, but the NDS officers are not well versed in this task. For example, the successful capture of Kunduz (a province in northern Afghanistan) by the Taliban did not occur because of their weapons superiority or technical expertise in battlefield; it happened because of massive failure of intelligence cooperation and coordination between the NDS, the National Security Agency of Afghanistan (NSA), the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the Interior Ministry (MoI).
This was a particular case of intelligence failure in so far as alerts from security agencies coupled with available collected intelligence reports highlighting Taliban’s plan to capture the city were all simply ignored or refuted by the Ministry of Defence and the NSA, even after receiving regular real-time Taliban movements. However, the fall of Kunduz did not come as a surprise, particularly considering the territory already controlled by Taliban. The subsequent siege of Kunduz, even after receiving real-time Taliban movements confirmed by security alerts and already available intelligence inputs points towards a massive intelligence failure. It is important to note that, right from the initial establishment of the NDS with the assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), collecting and disseminating intelligence, managing information flow and formulating clear operational objectives have all constituted major challenges.
Additionally, the saga of lost-in-translation and unclear objectives massively affected the relationship between the Pentagon, the NDS, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which all approached differently the ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan. These different visions and perspectives towards war on terrorism in Afghanistan, impacted negatively the Afghan National Army (ANA)and the NDS. This was especially the case after the withdrawal of US troops in late 2014; the challenges faced were beyond the capacity of the NDS. Since then, the Taliban attacks compromised Kabul’s control over many territories. ANA endured major casualties during the early days of US withdrawal, forcing it to operate thinly within the territories under their control. The Taliban attacked from Pakistan’s side of the border, crippling an Afghan effective response. The NDS failure to adequately and systematically collect vital intelligence, especially in rural regions, remains a challenge which hinders its ability to respond to or even identify sudden attacks.
Political and military interventions by neighbouring countries, various warlords, violent non-state actors such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State, are the main factor behind the prolonged civil war which continues to pose a grave threat to Afghan’s national security today. It is important to note that after each attack the only statement received from security institutions in Kabul is that the attacks were carried by elements operating beyond the border. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has been a haven for terrorist groups, but Afghan national intelligence agencies on numerous accounts, severely compromised domestic and regional security.
On numerous accounts, the then President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, admitted the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to train and equip militants in Pakistan and then sending them to Afghanistan to carry out terror attacks. It is also important to note that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recruited and trained over 250,000 mujahid fighters (between the ages of 14 to 45) in the last century, whereas the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded the ISI to train those fighters along with Pakistani military and ISI intelligence officers. General Musharraf acknowledged the nation’s practice of arming and training militant groups, especially acknowledging the role of ISI in providing financial aid to Taliban within its territory. He even acknowledged the existence of on-going operations conducted by ISI in Afghanistan with a special emphasis on financial and military assistance provided to the Taliban in an effort to carry out attacks against Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) through-out the country.
In addition to this, Pakistan’s former ambassador to US Husain Haqqani, on numerous occasions, confirmed the Islamabad’s policy of sponsoring terrorism through violent non-state actors. Moreover, there were vital documents highlighting that the financial assistance sent from Washington to the Pakistani military which was strictly meant to assist in counter terrorism, was significantly used by the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to sponsor and arm violent militant factions. It is an un-deniable fact that the famed Pakistan’s ISI has been the principle sponsor and master mind of many violent attacks in Afghanistan and India, from a major participant in 9/11, to train bombings in Mumbai, the attack on Indian parliament in 2001 followed by the 26/11 terror siege, or still the attack on the Kabul International airport. Pakistan also brazenly aided and abetted famed terror leaders such as Osama bin Laden or Mullah Umar.
It was rather the failure of major nations to provide timely aid to Afghanistan, coupled with the sheer neglect to strengthen intelligence gathering units, which paved the way for Islamic violent factions to survive and prosper.
Moscow was particularly involved in regional Afghan politics until a full-scale invasion in 1978. Intelligence agencies such as the KGB were used extensively in an effort to overthrow regional leaders.
Intelligence is no longer limited to the traditional assimilation of information flow and its management; in modern warfare, intelligence is engagement with human beings to gain leverage. It is very difficult to separate the role of intelligence during peace and war-time. In the west, intelligence agencies are not only seen as warning of an incoming threat, rather they act as an informational hub — comprising varying procedures from information gathering to its secret assessment. It is important to note that reforming a national security architecture also highlights the legitimacy of the government.
Within the domain of security architecture, our approach will not focus on the challenges faced during technical and covert operations; instead it aims to identify factors which can make NDS a responsible agency while discussing the importance of NDS post-9/11. The traditional operational mechanism of Afghan intelligence agencies is largely based on human intelligence because of inadequate technical equipment’s and monetary support. The intelligence is largely gathered through local farmers, sympathetic teachers, responsible shop owners, and village headmen. Since the intelligence so gathered is deemed to come from un-reliable sources, it holds poor quality and it is doubtful. At the same time, the by the book feature is essentially absent as there is no rule book or framework.
Role of Afghan intelligence during the Soviet invasion
During the Soviet invasion, numerous domestic intelligence institutions were established with the support of the then KGB and GRU (Military Intelligence Directorate) aiming to tighten the grip around the mujahedeen fighters. In the meantime, domestic intelligence agencies such as the Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) along with Khadamar-e Aetela’at-e Dawlati (KhAD) enjoyed hospitable relations with both KGB and GRU, in the light of their extensive influence on intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Between 1980 and 1992, these intelligence agencies played a vital role in countering extremist forces in Afghanistan. However, in 1992, Dr. Najibullah’s government collapsed and so did the entire government infrastructure, including its intelligence institutions.
The period of the 1980s is usually termed as the utopian period of Afghan politics. The governments of the time, in an effort to ensure stability and security in the region, established four intelligence agencies, two external: Da Kargarano Amniyati Mu’asasa (KAM); Workers Intelligence Service, Da Afghanistan da Gato de Satalo Adara (AGSA); along with two domestic agencies WAD and KhAD. President Taraki’s regime was awfully short (between 1978-1979); the political decisions of his successor, President Hafizullah Amin, created a rift among intelligence agencies and regional communist parties. Because of these differences AGSA was dissolved.
In the early 1980s, the government replaced the intelligence agency KAM with the KhAD. In 1986, the then government systematically removed KhAD from the then Interior Ministry (MOI) while establishing a new department titled Office of the Prime Minister which was later re-named as the Ministry of State Security, Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD). The then Director General, Dr Najibullah reported directly to KGB headquarters in Moscow. In addition to this, former KGB operatives cited the manpower estimation of over 17,000 to 35,000 individuals in Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) alone, whereas they estimated presence of over 100,000 local assets and the presence of over three to four KGB officers assisting one (KhAD) officer. Beyond the border, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence recruited trained and armed over 90,000 to 100,000 mujahid fighters between 1980 and 1990 while receiving financial assistance from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to counter Soviet armed forces.
The KhAD was specifically tasked to maintain domestic stability and security in the region while ensuring uninterrupted governance from the then communist leadership while maintaining relationship between all tribes and minority groups under the programs initiated by the then Ministry of Nationalities and Tribal Affairs. Moreover, KhAD earned the title of Secret squads of KGB by demonstrating complete ruthlessness in an effort to assist the then government to maintain absolute control over urban territories. KhAD also secretly financed religious scholars and established a separate government institution under the name of Directorate of Religious Affairs. It is important to note that the KhAD was a politico-centred intelligence agency led by President Dr Najibullah who tried to use every available means to justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While extensively emphasising the importance of urban territorial control, the then Afghan government and their Soviet advisors failed to exercise control over rural hinterlands.
In the early years of KhAD operations, intelligence officers were extensively trained in the art of torture. This training was a part of their curriculum as promoted mostly by the then East German officers (Stasi) and KGB trainers. During their reign, numerous hidden execution sites were created, and large number of Afghans were kidnapped and executed. However, with a twist in KGB leadership, officers from KhAD were tutored in electronic intelligence techniques, drifting from the traditional interrogation techniques.
According to one former KGB officer, between 1980 and late 1984 over 80,000 Afghans entered the Soviet Union. By 1986, over 25,000 officers from the KhAD were trained in special intelligence techniques. In the light of numerically few trained intelligence officers in NDS, the then leadership had no choice but to employ KGB-trained officers and deploy inexperienced recruits. In an effort to reform the entire intelligence infrastructure, especially in the light of NDS poorly executed operations, policy makers must address this issue immediately. It is imperative to reform the current intelligence architecture while establishing laws which could prevent the use of domestic agencies to achieve political gains.
Moreover, the KhAD recruited large numbers of informers and maintained a close-knit relationship with tribal lords, particularly those residing close to the border, in an effort to both maintain strict vigilance, monitor the supply routes taken by resistance fighters, and ensuring safety and security of government officers. The KGB employed numerous tactical manoeuvres. One such manoeuvre was maintaining tribal connection which they effectively used to infiltrate resistance fighters, destroy their operations, flood with incorrect information, and create an aura of mistrust within the resistance fighters in an effort to severe their relationship with local communities. Their main goal was to incite violence between the tribes, fuelling ambitions within the powerful tribal leaders, and use all means necessary to exploit their ambitions, while ensuring that they do not participate in anti-communist movements. The sole agenda of Soviet intelligence agencies was to exploit their ethnicity, identity and cultural linkage while limiting the nation to a meager tool of Soviet propaganda.
The Role of the CIA
After years of war, insecurity and instability, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was established in 2002 – with the assistance of CIA and the Pentagon – in an effort to counter the threat posed by the Taliban while collecting information from urban and rural regions. This latest intelligence agency was a replacement of the Soviet-sponsored KhAD. During the Soviet occupation the KhAD emerged as the ‘powerful domestic intelligence agency, ruthless and yet one of the most professional intelligence groups with battlefield experience’- however well known for tactics such as ‘detention without trial, forced abduction, mass execution by comparison the NDS was a strong leadership led organization; however, it lacked ingenuity, professional conduct, relevant intelligence trainings or adequate finances. Since its formal establishment, no directives/framework were established to ensure its professionalism. Its leaders even failed to adapt CIA directives. Today the nation is in desperate need of establishing a well-informed intelligence agency which could effectively provide vital information on insurgent’s whereabouts/movements and distribute timely to a relevant group to take necessary action. The vital source of information is formed by the interaction with tribal leaders; this interaction, when properly channeled through local commanders, is the foundational route of intelligence in Afghanistan.
The command structure of the NDS is independent, which means that it does not come under the architecture of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior; however, it does host a close-knit relationship with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at all levels. Its operations are directed by the National Security Agency of Afghanistan; the head of NDS reports directly to the President. On numerous occasions the NDS has been blamed for not adequately liaising with regional police commanders or Ministry of Defence (MOD) officials while providing un-timely and inaccurate intelligence when asked by relevant agencies. Moreover, and on numerous occasions the leadership within the NDS ignored relevant and vital information while responding untimely or withholding certain intelligence vital for other agency operations. Another failure of the NDS is the lack of technical and scientific know-how. While looking at the previous operational prognosis, the NDS repeatedly failed to assess collected intelligence which points towards another key issue related to an absent policy framework. NDS intelligence officers face no difficulty in gathering intelligence; however, they appear to be challenged during assessment. There is an absolute need to establish an operational mechanism, a framework or an institutional doctrine of intelligence agencies highlighting clear goals to be established during democratic regimes. It will not be incorrect to state that Intelligence agencies operating in Afghanistan are in desperate need for necessary technical and management systems.
In the light of repeated intelligence failures and mistrust with their sister intelligence agencies, the NDS has received acute criticism even for disrespecting and ignoring the orders of their Commander-in-Chief i.e. the President. The frequent inter agency confrontation forced discontented political leadership to initiate numerous debates on open forums acutely criticising the NDS, especially the unruly behaviour of the chiefs who openly criticised actions of the President. This sudden transition of the NDS from an intelligence agency to a political party invited acute criticism from intelligence and military experts throughout the world.
In an effort to maintain strict discipline amongst the NDS leadership, President Karzai frequently changed said leadership; however, this brought no significant change in their operations. Thus, domestic contentions between the NDS and other security agencies coupled with the successful capture of Kunduz by the Taliban and the failure to appropriately act even after receiving viable intelligence inputs broke the trust of many political leaders in Kabul. Policy makers need to understand that for every intelligence agency there is a fail-safe related to unforeseeable errors. This fail safe is further reinforced by a marriage of three pillars of the agency: the decision-making level, the operational level and the enforcement level. The cooperation and coordination of these three pillars is absolutely vital. Furthermore, failure of intelligence does not necessarily mean misinterpretation of vital information or failure for the agency to respond. Intelligence failures can occur due to failings in any of the three aforementioned pillars. To ensure that the agency remains active and aggressive, policy makers must enforce reforms while keeping in mind recent and future threats.
When an agency suffers from a failure at a strategic and operational level, it is the responsibility of the heads of these levels to conduct a thorough assessment of the machinery. Usually, intelligence failures are largely unavoidable; however, it is always imperative for various management heads to run a pre-simulation assessment before initiating an operation. Certain failures such as understanding the operation, agency’s ability to conduct, coordinate and cooperate with various actors, and inadequate dissemination of information occurs because of inadequate training of intelligence officers.
Policy makers must understand that intelligence agencies are the engine of both domestic and external security architecture, an engine whose primary function is to ensure domestic security in the country. Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Ha Mossadle Modin in uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim (Mossad), which work on dual operational theory, most intelligence agencies are either offensive or defensive but not both. In the light of our current issue, the NDS is relatively passive. When the Taliban were defeated, one of the main challenges for Washington was to re-structure security institutions in Afghanistan. Washington tasked the re-structuring of Afghan National Army to its Special Operations Command Centre (SOCC) under the leadership of the United States’ Central Command, an agency also tasked with restructuring the NDS and local law enforcement units. There is a sheer absence of integration between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the NDS which policy makers must counter through human intelligence trainings and viable domestic security legislation. It must always be remembered that the Afghan intelligence plays a vital role in providing real-time intelligence to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assets. Furthermore, there is an absolute need to train NDS officers on new and innovating intelligence gathering and assessment techniques. This task could be handed over to the CIA which is fully capable of training Afghan intelligence officers on gathering information through human intelligence techniques.
Being the main intelligence gathering agency in Afghanistan, the NDS continues to share intel with necessary policy makers as well as provincial police commanders and political leaders. Afghan National Army recruits, the NDS comprises staffs and officers who were previously trained by Soviets or fought alongside the Mujahideen. However, in an effort to perform effectively and efficiently there is an absolute need of clarity. Although the National Directorate of Security is one of the most responsible and professional arms within the ANSF, in the light of emerging Taliban and other violent factions in Afghanistan there is no need to link with ANSF or ISAF operations – particularly considering the history of poor coordination and cooperation between the two agencies. It is vital for the NDS to maintain a strict framework of intelligence, since its officers belong to all sects, ethnicities and tribes. It has gripped every city, town and province. The NDS is a frontline plain-clothed military intelligence unit that separates violent actors from the crowd.
Although having defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda factions roughly 17 years ago, Afghanistan remains a battlefield. Since the departure of large sections of US forces, tactical aerial reconnaissance aircrafts and hell-fire armed drones, large unmonitored rural areas of Afghanistan are prone to Taliban occupation. Various Pakistan sponsored terrorist factions are inducing violence on the streets. Using non-traditional methods such as suicide bombings, vehicle laden high explosive devices, planned ambushes, assassinations and militant factions have re-appeared.
Despite receiving extensive financial assistance, the challenges faced by security agencies continue to increase phenomenally. Many experts continue to question the failure of intelligence mechanism taking place even after receiving extensive guidance from NATO and CIA officers in their 17 years of stay. This points towards the fact that the resources deployed by the CIA were not used efficiently. Also, Washington’s deployment of necessary US Special forces in Iraq and Middle East theatre seems to be at least partly responsible. Moreover, linking intelligence techniques with Afghanistan’s culture was difficult for many CIA experts whereas the State Department continued to blame woes on foreign elements and Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence interference in creating a vital strategy for Afghanistan. Traditionally, Washington and NATO have been playing the game half-heartedly. Allowing insurgency to develop was a mistake in the first place, for said insurgency soon became too aggressive and beyond the control of policy makers and their efforts regarding domestic counter-extremist policies.
There are other extremist factions besides Al Qaeda and the Taliban, including Daesh and state-sponsored elements such as the Haqqani Network. Since a large rural section of Afghanistan remains unmonitored and since the NDS in its limited passive operation cannot monitor all pathways, it is possible for many radical Islamic factions such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh seek refuge in the country. Today, Kabul continues to suffer from numerous organizational challenges – besides poor infrastructural framework, inadequate inter-agency interaction, poor cooperation and coordination, socio-economic limitations, rampant corruption, unsafe and unguarded territories, and terrorist activities. Terrorist factions will continue to be rampant and discreet.
On numerous occasions political leadership from Afghanistan and the US have bilaterally discussed the development of a dedicated Afghan Air Force. However, after identifying critical faults during initial developments in this Afghan Air Force, military and policy makers clearly questioned the capability of a sustainable air force.
With a clear mandate by President Donald Trump to deploy extensive US military forces, experts have now raised questions on the traditional operations of assisting, advising and training Afghan National Security Forces while ensuring a hand-over of governance to Afghan nationals. It is now clear that US forces will again be called if an Afghan unit is suppressed under heavy fire. The Afghan forces did manage to free the city of Kunduz but for this they required American air forces and technical mounted units to release the pressure, clearly highlighting the fact that Afghan intelligence and security forces can no longer challenge violent terror factions solely. This statement once again questions the capability of Afghan National Security Forces, which remains vulnerable even after 17 years of presence of both NATO and US forces.
After extensively studying intelligence gathering mechanisms of various operations conducted by the NDS it became clear that NDS officers were unable to assess gathered intelligence inputs and that the policy initiated so as to support the officers failed drastically. The basic difference between the NDS and its mother agency CIA lies in its operational mechanisms. In the history of Afghanistan’s autocratic regimes were able to thrive because of their essential reliance on intelligence agencies. The Soviet invasion came when US and its allies failed to provide a secure environment.
During a liberal and democratic government in Afghanistan, political leadership and policy makers failed to coordinate, a fact which resulted in intense confrontation between political leaders and heads of intelligence agencies. Moreover, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence assistance to the NDS in strengthening intelligence sharing mechanisms surprised many military experts. Also, the global fight between RA&W and ISI have chosen Afghanistan as a playground, a fact which drastically hinders both the NDS and CIA’s initiatives to maintain peace and security in the region. To make things worse, Afghanistan has a history of politicisation of intelligence agencies, which points towards the need to establish a viable institutional framework.
With few experienced intelligence officers operating within the NDS and with the CIA’s inability to train and recruit more expeditiously the NDS was left with no choice but to employ Soviet trained officers. To make the NDS an effective and professional organization, policy makers must focus their attention on its training and recruitment policy. Furthermore, Afghanistan continues to suffer from wounds received from a violent past while seemingly moving toward an unrevealingly bleak future. Adapting new and innovative techniques has always been a difficult task, especially re-structuring intelligence agencies so as to work democratically. Afghanistan, of course, wants to change yet in the light of its violent past, this change will be harsh and slow.
With a history of repeatedly committing the same mistakes the government has yet to introduce viable pragmatic reforms so as to strengthen its intelligence agencies. Kunduz is not just one mistake the NDS committed there were numerous entirely avoidable intelligence failures, in fact so many that they would be impossible to highlight in one article alone. With a history of repeating multiple intelligence failures, the need to strengthen the NDS and other agencies into professional intelligence institutions is the need of the hour.
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Mounting Cyber Espionage and Hacking Threat from China
Earlier this month a ransomware attack on America’s Prospect Medical Holdings, which operates dozens of hospitals and hundreds of clinics and outpatient centres across the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Southern California was forced to shut off its centres in several locations as the healthcare system experienced software disruptions. In June India’s premier hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) faced a malware attack on its systems which was thwarted by its cyber-security systems. This is not the first time that the premier hospital’s data was breached. In November 2022, AIIMS had experienced a cyberattack within weeks of announcing that from January 2023, it would operate on a completely paperless mechanism. The cyber attack which involved ransomware, designed to deny a user or organisation access to files, lasted for nearly a month affecting the profile of almost 4 crore patients – affecting registration, appointments, billing, laboratory report generation, among other operations of the hospital. Regarding the quantum of data that was compromised, the government revealed that “five servers of AIIMS were affected and approximately 1.3 terabytes of data was encrypted.”
Till June this year, Indian Government organisations faced over one lakh cyber security incidents and financial institutions saw over four lakh incidents. Data presented by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which has the mandate of tracking and monitoring cybersecurity incidents in India, indicates rising Cyberattacks to government organisations. or systems year on year. From 70798 in 2018, to 112474 in 2023 (up to June) incidents of cyber attacks have been on the rise, on a year on year basis. Presenting this data at the Parliament, Minister for electronics and IT Ashwini Vaishnaw said, “With innovation in technology and rise in usage of the cyberspace and digital infrastructure for businesses and services, cyber-attacks pose a threat to confidentiality, integrity and availability of data and services, which may have direct or indirect impact on the organisation.”
A lot of the hacking activity points towards China. Western intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly wary of digital intrusion by hacking teams that they believe are being backed by China’s government. Almost a decade ago, American computer security firm Mandiant had made the startling claim that these hacking groups are operated by units of China’s army. The firm was able to trace an overwhelming percentage of the attacks on American corporations, organisations and government agencies to a building on the outskirts of Shanghai. Mandiant made the case that the building was one of the bases of the People’s Liberation Army’s corps of cyberwarriors. US intelligence analysts have detected that a central element of Chinese computer espionage is Unit 61398 which targets American and Canadian government sites. Mandiant, which was hired by The New York Times, found that hacker groups like “Comment Crew” or “Shanghai Group” were behind hundreds of attacks on U.S. companies, focusing “on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks” thereafter bringing that information to the military unit 61398.
In their defence the China’s authorities simply denied any form of state-sponsored hacking, and have in turn dubbed the US National Security Agency (NSA) as “the world’s largest hacker organisation.”
Nonetheless, since the 2013 revelations, Chinese hacking teams have generated a lot of interest and Western cybersecurity companies and intelligence agencies have accused them of global digital incursion. They allege that Chinese government-backed hackers attempt to target everything from government and military organisations to corporations and media organisations.
Most recently in the footsteps of the incident involving the Chinese spy balloon Microsoft claimed that in an ongoing effort Chinese state-sponsored hackers group ‘Storm-0558’ was forging digital authentication tokens to gain unauthorised access to Microsoft’s Outlook accounts and urged users “close or change credentials for all compromised accounts”. On May 24, Microsoft and US intelligence state-sponsored hackers of ‘Volt Typhoon’ were engaged in ongoing spying of critical US infrastructure organisations ranging from telecommunications to transportation hubs, using an unnamed vulnerability in a popular cybersecurity suite called FortiGuard, and had been active since mid-2021.
According to US cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks cyber espionage threat group ‘BackdoorDiplomacy’ has links to the Chinese hacking group called ‘APT15’and they are all involved in cyber intrusions and financially motivated data breaches for the Chinese government. During the visit by then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, APT27 initiated a range of cyber attacks targeting Taiwan’s presidential office, foreign and defence ministries as well as infrastructure such as screens at railway stations. Television screens at 7-11 convenience stores in Taiwan Began to display the words: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!”
Mara Hvistendahl’s article in Foreign Policy, 2017 ‘China’s Hacker Army’ estimated China’s “hacker army” anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, but rejected the belief that it was a monolithic cyber army. Mara contends that Chinese hackers are for the most part dangerous ‘freelancers’ whose ‘causes neatly overlap with the interests of the Chinese government’ and these hackers are left alone as long as they target foreign sites and companies.
Although cyber attacks have gone up globally, data by Check Point, an American-Israeli software company, reveals that weekly cyber attacks in India have gone up by 18 per cent this year, which is 2.5 times more than the global increase. Furthermore the cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated as hackers try to weaponize legitimate tools for malicious gains. For instance the use of ChatGPT for code generation, enables hackers to effortlessly launch cyberattacks.
Last year in a massive case of cyber espionage, Chinese-linked hackers broke into mail servers operated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in February 2022 and stole sensitive data. At the recent ‘Conference on Crime & Security on the theme of ‘NFTs, AI and the Metaverse’, current G20 President India, has highlighted the need for cooperation to build cyber-resilience in an increasingly connected world. Both cyber attacks and cyber crimes have national security implications.
In India, investigations into the cyberattack, which had crippled the functioning of India premier health institution AIIMS, revealed that “the IP addresses of two emails, which were identified from the headers of files that were encrypted by the hackers, originated from Hong Kong and China’s Henan province”.
Earlier this year, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray had an alarming metric, – that Chinese hackers outnumber FBI cyber staff 50 to one. Addressing a Congressional panel he said, China has “a bigger hacking programme than every other major nation combined and has stolen more of our personal and corporate data than all other nations — big or small — combined.”
China is today home to some of the most sophisticated hackers, whose capabilities have only improved with time. Their motivations and actions might be independent but are conveniently entwined. However, much more needs to be understood about the hacker culture from China in recent years, if the menace of cybercrime and ransomware is to be mitigated successfully .
Whistleblowers: the Unsung Heroes
Whistleblowing is a bribery and corruption prevention strategy that does not receive the credit it deserves. In fact, rather than relying exclusively on laws, regulations, and resolutions, whistleblowing can be considered a highly effective method to combat bribery and corruption in any field, including government or corporate settings. Whistleblowing often leads to sustainable solutions, as it involves voices from various levels, ranging from grassroots to top-tier management. However, there are plethora of challenges whistleblowers face when they blow the whistle. Nonetheless, whistleblowers play a crucial role in preventing bribery and corruption, and this pivotal role enables preserving the security of any nation.
As stated by the National Center for Whistleblowing (2021), at its core, a whistleblower is an individual who discloses instances of wastefulness, fraudulent activities, misconduct, corruption, or hazards to public well-being, with the intention of prompting corrective actions. While whistleblowers are often affiliated with the organization where the wrongdoing occurs, it is not a prerequisite; anyone can assume the role of a whistleblower as long as they reveal information about the wrongdoing that would otherwise remain concealed. In simple terms, a whistleblower is a person who acts responsibly on behalf of themselves as well as others. Whistleblowers play an extremely imperative role in any society, as they stand for justice, promote accountability, and advocate transparency.
When looking at its link to national security, whistleblowers play a crucial role. One prominent action is whistleblowers exposing imminent and occurred security threats. They are capable of disclosing breaches of security, illegal surveillance, and in situations where individuals or entities are attempting to divulge material information. Whistleblowers uncover injustices, misconduct, and beyond-the-scope activities of decision-makers within government or private entities. If individuals engage in unethical practices, illegal actions, or actions jeopardizing integrity, whistleblowers blow the whistle. One such example, as reported by St. Francis School of Law in 2022, is whistleblower Frank Serpico’s case. He was the first police officer who openly testified about corruption within the New York Police Department, reporting instances of police corruption, including bribes and payoffs, despite facing numerous obstacles. His revelations contributed to a 1970 New York Times story on systemic corruption in the NYPD, leading to the formation of the Knapp Commission. In 1971, he survived a suspicious shooting during an arrest, raising concerns about potential attempts to harm him. Serpico’s bravery emphasized the importance of accountability and transparency in law enforcement.
Whistleblowers also contribute by facilitating accountability by bringing into light corrupt practices such as mismanagement of money. An example is, in 1968 when A. Ernest Fitzgerald, known as the “godfather of the defense movement,” exposed a staggering $2.3 billion cost overrun related to the Lockheed C-5 transport aircraft. His courageous testimony before Congress shed light on issues in defense contracting and resulted in substantial government savings. Fitzgerald’s contributions went beyond the immediate case, playing a crucial role in the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. This results in a culture of accountability where representatives of the public are answerable to their actions. Whistleblowers uphold the rule of law and promote justice by defending the rights of the citizens. It fosters democracy.
However, whistleblowers are often subjected to criticism for standing up against injustice. They fear retaliation, as guilty parties may try to silence them out of revenge. Additionally, companies or institutions may not take whistleblowers seriously, leading them to avoid addressing the reported issues. In many cases, this happens because governments or authorities in power might be involved in bribery and corruption. Public recognition and appreciation of whistleblowers’ contributions to society are vital and should not be perceived as excessive. In addition, there are situations where groups of individuals create sub cultures within organisation and act against rules and protocols jeopardising inclusive culture. In such situations, reporting to a superior will be seen as favoritism or being overly devoted to the institution. This toxic environment demotivates valuable employees or those willing to stand against injustice. The lack of adequate legal protection further compounds the challenges faced by whistleblowers. Moreover, the courage to stand against bribery and corruption is in dire need, as many individuals may lack the moral fortitude to do so.
Whistleblowers are internationally and domestically protected, primarily through the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Other international agreements, such as the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the Organization of American States Inter-American Convention against Corruption, also demonstrate a commitment to whistleblower protection. Various influential international organizations, including the G20, OECD, and APEC, have played a role in promoting whistleblower laws and best practices worldwide. On the domestic front, countries like Sri Lanka have specific laws dealing with corruption, while OECD findings highlight countries with comprehensive whistleblower laws such as the United States, Canada, Japan, and others.
Despite these efforts, there are still some ambiguities and gaps in provisions that hinder effective whistleblowing. For instance, the proposed anti-corruption bill in Sri Lanka allows public officers to accept gratifications authorized by written law or employment terms, which undermines the core objectives of the bill and enables influential individuals to evade accountability for corrupt gains. In Russia, whistleblower protection is limited, with unsuccessful attempts to establish protective measures in 2017. This puts Russia behind the EU, which has implemented robust whistleblower protection through the Whistleblowing Directive.
It is evident that whistleblowers play an indispensable role in combatting bribery and corruption, acting as a highly effective strategy to preserve the security of any nation. Despite facing numerous challenges, these individuals contribute significantly by uncovering wrongdoing, promoting accountability, and upholding transparency. By exposing imminent security threats and holding corrupt practices accountable, whistleblowers safeguard the rule of law and foster democracy. However, to harness the full potential of whistleblowing, it is crucial to address barriers to reporting and remedy afore mentioned legal hurdles. Encouraging a whistleblowing culture and recognizing their contributions will enable society to effectively mitigate and combat bribery and corruption, by creating a more just and transparent environment. To accomplish this, organizations can embrace a culture of whistleblowing, by conducting awareness campaigns, implementing training programs, and fostering a safe and supportive environment for whistleblowers to come forward. In addition, implementing technical measures and policies to ensure whistleblower protection, authorities can demonstrate their commitment to supporting those who expose wrongdoing. These collective actions will strengthen the pivotal role of whistleblowers in preserving security by combating bribery and corruption, fostering a safer and more ethical society for the future.
Breaking the Grip: Comprehensive Policy Recommendations to Defeat Drug Cartels
In 2022, drug overdoses claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans. The primary sources of illegal drugs flooding into the United States are the Mexican drug cartels, who exploit a network of corrupt politicians, police officers, and military personnel in Mexico. Within Mexico itself, these cartels are responsible for a staggering level of violence, including tens of thousands of homicides each year. Within the United States, the cartels establish distribution cells, collaborating with either Mexican gangs or affiliated criminal organizations.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the number-one threat to the United States. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) are the richest and most powerful. Their exceptional earnings allow them to invest in soldiers and weapons, as well as payoffs and bribes, enabling them to expand their territorial control.
To effectively address the challenge posed by the cartels, the United States should adopt a comprehensive set of policy measures. These include securing the southern border, fostering enhanced cooperation with the Mexican government, implementing immigration reforms, bolstering drug enforcement efforts domestically, designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, imposing targeted financial and economic sanctions, and considering if limited military intervention is necessary.
While these measures hold significant potential, there exist political barriers that hinder their implementation.
Secure the Southern Border
Since January 2020, over five million people have illegally crossed the southern border. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) identifies protecting the border from illegal movements of people and drugs as being essential to homeland security. Transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, are responsible for most of the drugs entering the country. On an average day, CBP seizes 1,797 pounds of illegal narcotics. In 2022, CBP seized a total of “more than 1.8 million pounds of narcotics and 14,700 pounds of fentanyl.” Preventing the cartels from being able to transport drugs into the United States would take away their income, causing their soldiers and friendly politicians to stop cooperating with them.
In order to better secure the border, CBP has created a preparedness plan which consists of a number of crucial elements, such as increasing the number of personnel, while improving technology and infrastructure. In addition to new hires, the number of personnel can be augmented through increased cooperation with other branches of law enforcement and the military. In May, President Biden, in response to a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees CBP, ordered an additional 1,500 troops to the border for a 90-day deployment. This was on top of the 2,500 already in place. Texas Governor Ron Abbot deployed his national guard and the new Texas Tactical Border Force to the border. North Dakota and Tennessee, as well as other states, also sent members of their national guard to Texas. In addition to national guard troops, the state of Florida sent a mix of state law-enforcement officers from varying branches. To effectively control the border, however, and have a major impact on illegal immigration, the number of troops will have to be drastically increased and the deployment would have to be permanent.
The technological improvements called for by the DHS include increased use of high-tech assets for aerial surveillance such as drones and manned aircraft. They also want sensors on border barriers, land sensors, cameras, radar, and autonomous surveillance towers. This technology will allow the DHS to better detect, monitor, and track unauthorized border crossings. Additionally, improved data analytics and artificial intelligence would help with screening and processing of legal entrants as well as illegals who have been apprehended.
The DHS has called for improved infrastructure towers, as well as facility expansion and upgrades. Some U.S. lawmakers would also like to see the border wall completed, particularly along vulnerable areas. A wall would impede illegal entry to the country, while making it easier for officials to spot illegal crossings.
Plans to secure the border have been rejected on a number of grounds. First, it would be expensive to station the necessary number of personnel at the border. Increased infrastructure, particularly the wall, would also be very costly and would not provide a 100-percent solution. Even more, it would be seen as racist, with Bloomberg calling the border wall a monument to White Supremacy.
Increased Cooperation with Mexican Government
One part of the cooperation with Mexico has to include Mexico’s willingness to help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Mexican President López Obrador formed a national guard tasked with this purpose, but the group has been condemned by human rights activists. Furthermore, the national guard, like other elements of Mexico’s law enforcement and military, suffers from corruption.
If migrants were turned away by the U.S. in large numbers, Mexico would have to stand ready to accept them. Mexico would also have to form agreements with other countries in the chain of drug transit, from Colombia, through Central America, to the U.S. border. These countries will have to similarly agree to help prevent migrants from entering Mexico and they will have to stand ready to receive those migrants returned by Mexico.
Inside of Mexico, the Mexican government must actively fight the cartels, disarming them, disbanding them, and loosening their hold over both territory and people. This includes targeting high-profile cartel leaders. This will create command and control vacuums which historically have caused in-fighting among cartel members. Large cartels would then splinter into independent and warring groups with considerably less power. Changes within Mexico, however, would be dependent on reducing corruption, and these policies would be very unpopular among politicians, police, and military officers who benefit from the status quo.
Because of the massive corruption and the influence the cartels have over the Mexican authorities, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has abandoned any hope of cooperating with the Mexican government, calling the country “a failed narco-state.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has similarly given up on the Mexican government, saying that the U.S. should notify Mexico that the cartels will soon be designated as terrorist organizations.
The screening process for legal immigrants must be strengthened, while backdoor avenues, such as illegal entry and asylum-seeking, must be curtailed. Under the Biden administration, anyone arriving at the southern border can claim to be seeking asylum. This allows them to remain in the United States awaiting their asylum hearing. Republicans see this as an enticement for people wishing to enter the country, bypassing normal immigration procedures. Rights groups, on the other hand, complain that Washington should not curtail its acceptance of asylum seekers. In this case, asylum seekers should be returned to Mexico to await their court date. Knowing that they cannot get a free pass into the U.S. would reduce the number of people seeking to exploit the system. This change in immigration procedure would have to be coordinated with Mexico, however, as the undocumented would be entering Mexican territory.
Increased Drug Enforcement in the U.S.
Drug laws in the U.S. must be rigorously enforced in order to reduce the demand for drugs. Law enforcement must be strengthened, including additional training, and increased investigation and prosecution of drug-related crimes. Intelligence gathering must be enhanced through the creation of specialized units and task forces. The DEA reported that drug cartels are exploiting social media to sell fentanyl and methamphetamine. The authorities should closely monitor these social media in order to identify and arrest buyers and sellers. Furthermore, the DEA must coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to increase arrests of people selling or buying illegal drugs.
Beyond law enforcement and prosecution, there must be comprehensive drug prevention and treatment programs, education campaigns, addiction treatment, and rehabilitation programs. Opponents of strict enforcement claim that enforcement does not work because drug use has increased during the 50 years that the U.S. war on drugs has been going on. The war on drugs has cost $1 trillion, and roughly one in five incarcerated people were arrested on drug charges. Opponents also complain that prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino. Although only 13.4 percent of the population is African American, about 25 percent of all persons arrested for drugs are African American adults.
Identify Cartels as International Terrorist Organization
The cartels are known to cooperate with international terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al-Qaeda, in order to sell their drugs in other parts of the world. They also aid terrorism by smuggling terrorists into the United States. To launder their illicit income, they employ the services of Chinese criminal organizations which pose their own threat to the United States. U.S. lawmakers have proposed designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, because they use violence and threats of violence to influence and control judges, politicians, and lawmakers. Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations would facilitate U.S. government seizure of cartel assets. It would make it easier for the U.S. to arrest cartel members inside of the United States, and possibly inside of Mexico. The U.S. could deport or bar from entry persons associated with the cartels. A terrorism designation would also enable the U.S. to deploy the military, even inside of Mexico.
However, there would be a number of disadvantages. First, violence would most likely increase, particularly if the U.S. military became involved. Next, it would effectively destroy U.S.-Mexico relations. The U.S. would be able to sanction or arrest high-ranking members of the Mexican government and security forces, which might be perceived as an act of war. These types of purges might destabilize the Mexican government and would, at the very least, cause a breakdown in cooperation between the two nations. Furthermore, bilateral trade, valued at $800 billion and accounting for millions of jobs on both sides of the border, would dry up. Increased violence, a destabilized government, and a loss of jobs would increase the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw and other U.S. lawmakers have called for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to target Mexican drug cartels, saying “We must start treating them like ISIS – because that is who they are.” Those who back an AUMF point to the fact that the cartels are responsible for more American deaths each year than the entire Vietnam War. An AUMF would provide the president with the sophisticated hardware and expert personnel of the U.S. military, more powerful assets than those possessed by law enforcement or the DHS. Supporters of an AUMF also make the point that the soldiers would be engaging foreign hostiles in a foreign nation and, therefore, would not be infringing on the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
In addition to arresting or killing key cartel members, military intervention could disrupt drug supply chains by destroying growing fields and drug labs. The government of Mexico has protested discussions of U.S. military operations in his country, calling it an offense to the Mexican people. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador said that he would not “permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene”.
Another disadvantage of U.S. military operations in Mexico would be an increase in violence. Inevitably, civilians would suffer, and the U.S. would be portrayed as the villain in the international and liberal press. The threat of cartel violence against Americans would also increase. Historically, the cartels have tried to avoid killing Americans, for fear of provoking Washington’s wrath. If the U.S. military began engaging in cross-border operations, the cartels would most likely declare all-out-war on Americans. Cartel violence within the U.S. would also accelerate as the cartels would be risking nothing by upping the ante.
Increased Financial and Economic Sanctions
Financial and economic sanctions can be powerful tools to break the cartels and to punish those who assist them. This includes enforcement of anti-money laundering laws, as well as targeting financial institutions that handle cartel money. Cartel assets held in banks around the world could be seized if U.S. allies also participated in the sanctions. If Mexico is legitimately interested in curbing corruption in their own government, this intense scrutiny would also help them to discover which public officials were accepting bribes.
Sanctions have already been used against the cartels: In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department, in cooperation with their Mexican counterparts, brought sanctions against a cartel member who was trafficking weapons from the United States. Under the sanctions, Obed Christian Sepulveda Portillo had his property in the U.S. seized. U.S. Entities and persons from the U.S. are also prohibited from doing business with him or completing transactions on his behalf. Those who violate these sanctions may face criminal charges or civil lawsuits. In July 2023, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against ten individuals, including several Sinaloa Cartel members, as well as one Mexico-based company, for their role in the production of illicit fentanyl and the precursor chemicals necessary for fentanyl production. Under the sanctions, all of their properties and interests in the U.S. were seized. Americans were banned from doing business with them. Companies in which they had a direct or indirect stake of 50 percent or more were also prohibited from doing business in the U.S. or with Americans. These are good examples, but to break the cartels, these types of sanctions would have to increase in scope, hitting large numbers of people participating in criminal networks.
From an efficacy standpoint, the above policy recommendations, if taken together, would result in a decrease in the supply side, a decrease in the demand side, and a long-term reduction in drug deaths and violent deaths in both the U.S. and Mexico, eventually leading to the stabilization of Mexico. Breaking the hold the cartels have on the country would allow Mexico to develop economically. This would benefit the entire population and the United States. But this success, which could take painful years to achieve, would come with a political and human cost which politicians may not be willing to pay.
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