Afghan request for spy balloons is up in the air
Chief of Police Niaz Mohammad had good news for his American military guests here: Security was improving in this crucial district bordering the southern city of Kandahar, and Taliban insurgents were no longer gathering in large numbers to stage attacks. But Mr. Mohammad had a pointed question: When the Americans leave, who will provide the eyes in the sky that are keeping the insurgents away? "At nighttime when they [insurgents] want to come and put in roadside bombs for us, we can't see them," he said. "We don't have technology like balloonsand that is a big thing for us."
When the U.S. sent troops to Arghandab as part of the 2010 surge, it also brought balloons laden with surveillance gear. The craft, which are also known as aerostats and look like smaller, pilotless versions of the Goodyear Blimp, are a common feature of the landscape in Afghanistan. Military officers describe them as a "force multiplier" for spotting potential threats and protecting forward operating bases. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made deployment of surveillance balloons a priority for the Pentagon during the surge.
Most U.S. and international troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, taking their gear with them. And Afghan security officials are worried about how the cash-strapped Afghan military will fare without drones and other surveillance tools to spot insurgents.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he would raise his govern- ment's request for better equipment when he visits Washington in the coming week. Senior Afghan officials say surveillance technologyincluding drones, balloons and other equipment-is on their wish list.
"With regards to intelligence, we are dependent on ISAF," said Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, referring to the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. "We need training and equipment."
The U.S. State Department and the White House have yet to com- ment publicly on expectations for the meeting in Washington. But U.S. officials privately express concern that Afghan leaders are too focused on high-end military equipment that their military can't afford to sustain.
The balloons were developed as a relatively cost-effective solution for watching over remote bases. Cameras on top of towers are vulnerable to small-arms fire, and keeping drones in the air around the clock is expensive, according to a U.S. Navy news release from 2011. The Afghans are already familiar with U.S. spy gear.