Afghan re­quest for spy bal­loons is up in the air

The Pak Banker - - 6BUSINESS -

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.

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