U.S.-Funded Intelligence Center Struggles in Khyber Region

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 12, 2009

TORKHAM, Afghanistan -- Located at the foot of a towering mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, the $3 million Khyber Border Coordination Center was billed as a first-of-its-kind experiment in intelligence sharing among Pakistani, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces when it opened here on a sunny day last spring.

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony March 29, Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, then the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, called the U.S.-funded center's opening "a giant step forward in cooperation, communication and coordination." The ceremony, which featured an Army band playing Dixieland, a lavish Afghan feast and upbeat declarations by generals, marked a seemingly historic moment for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have skirmished over their mutual border for more than 100 years.

But more than nine months later, U.S. officials at the Khyber Center say language barriers, border disputes between Pakistani and Afghan field officers, and longstanding mistrust among all three militaries have impeded progress.

"It's a very useful facility, but it's just going to take a while before they understand what cooperation entails," said Dan Villareal, a military contractor who has worked at the center since its inception.

The stated mission of the center, the first of six slated to open on both sides of the 1,500-mile-long border, is to use the latest technology and intelligence-gathering techniques to track insurgent movements in areas now largely controlled by al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban forces. U.S. military officials have also said they hoped the experimental three-way collaboration would help secure the beleaguered transit route for NATO supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

In the past two months alone, Taliban fighters have mounted about a dozen raids along the route near the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, bringing commercial traffic across the border to a near-standstill several times. Two weeks ago, the crossing here at Torkham was closed for three days while the Pakistani army conducted an operation aimed at halting insurgent raids on convoys.

"If we can limit the enemy activity because of expanded cooperation on both sides, it will not only give freedom of movement in terms of supplies across the border but enhance trade, which will improve the economies of both countries," said U.S. Army Col. Barrett F. Lowe, the officer charged with expanding the Khyber Center's operations.

About three months after the joint center opened, Pakistani and Afghan border-patrol officers at two nearby observation posts exchanged fire after a minor dispute got out of hand. Such skirmishes remain a regular occurrence near the Khyber Pass, where the border drawn by the British in 1893 is considered by both sides to be largely imaginary.

Meanwhile, construction of a second station to the southeast has been delayed by the insurgent attacks along Afghanistan's main highway. The center is scheduled to open in March, but recent photos indicate it is only partially built.

Last month, a marauding band kidnapped two Pakistani officers from the Khyber Center's intelligence-gathering team as they traveled home on leave. The two officers remain in captivity, prisoners of a resurgent cottage industry of abductions in Pakistan's tribal areas. They stand little chance of release unless their families can come up with a combined ransom of about $70,000. The Dec. 7 kidnapping has also complicated relations with a reluctant Pakistani military.

"It's disturbing," Lowe said. "Their kidnapping -- that potentially could have an impact on the Pakistani military's ability to support this effort. They have to think now about how they will get their officers here and whether they can come and go safely."

In an interview in late November, Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schlosser, the U.S. commander of coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan, said intelligence-sharing among Pakistani, Afghan and NATO forces has improved but has a long way to go. "It is still, in my mind, in its nascent form," Schlosser said of the Khyber Center.

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