KABUL, Afghanistan – When the Taliban engineered a prison break in the southern city of Kandahar in June, nearly 900 inmates escaped but not a single one had been fingerprinted or photographed.
Though foreign militants are flowing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, Iran and Chechnya, authorities often do not track them with fingerprints and photos. And even when they do, they are not always able transfer the documentation to international databases.
Interpol now hopes to bring Afghanistan up to international standards.
The international police organization wants to boost police capabilities here with equipment and training, and help connect police around the country with the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kabul.
"When you look around the world, where was the largest prison escape of terrorists in the world? Afghanistan," Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said on a recent visit. "Where do people believe the fighters from Iraq are moving? Afghanistan. Where have the Al Qaeda and Taliban shown a resurgence that should catch all of our attention? It's in Afghanistan."
The initiative could help alert police around the world when their wanted criminals are captured in the Afghan-Pakistan region.
An increasing number of terror plots meant to be unleashed in Europe are being traced back to Pakistan's tribal areas near the Afghan border, where militants get training and weapons supplies and cross into Afghanistan for attacks.
Currently, no Afghan police offices in the country's 34 provinces can take fingerprints and send them to Kabul to be entered into international databases, said B.S. Sardar Awa, the head of Afghanistan's Interpol office. Police in Kabul are able to submit information to Interpol.
Gen. Abdul Jalal Jalal, provincial police chief of the eastern province of Kunar, next to the border with Pakistan, said his region in particular needs more advanced police tools.
"We are arresting people without any documents, and we don't know who they are, and it's very difficult for us," Jalal said. "If we had advanced tests like fingerprinting or DNA, we could send it to Kabul and they could send it to Interpol."
Following Noble's visit here last week, Awa said he hopes to soon equip five to seven provinces with such equipment. But that will leave many other provinces — including regions that border Iran and Pakistan — lacking. Drug runners cross those borders to export Afghanistan's billion-dollar heroin poppy trade.
That means Afghanistan likely would not be able to replicate the capture by Iraqi police of a wanted international terrorist who had traveled from Morocco to Iraq. Moroccan Abdesslam Bakkali was arrested by Iraqi police in August 2004 for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks there.
Iraqi officials took his fingerprints, sent them to Interpol headquarters in France, where officials determined that Bakkali was wanted by Morocco for alleged involvement in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, police officials said, revealing for the first time details of a successful police take-down of an internationally wanted terrorist in the Iraq war zone.
"That model is a model we want to use in Afghanistan, the same principle, the same approach, based on successes we've had," Noble said.
"We're able to demonstrate that by sharing information internationally, we can show them that the non-Afghanis coming here to engage in terrorists attacks, it's not their first terrorist attack, it's not their first link with terrorism," Noble said. "By linking these cases, we have a better chance of breaking these cases internationally."
Police in Afghanistan have the least training and equipment of all the security forces. Already this year, more than 750 police have been killed in militant attacks, the Interior Ministry says. The police are receiving millions of dollars worth of training and equipment from the U.S., but have a long way to go to reach international standards.
Neither Noble nor Awa gave details about who would pay for the new Interpol-compatible equipment.
Afghanistan now has some 65,000 international troops, including around 33,000 American forces, but Noble said the international community needs to spend more time boosting police capabilities.
A June study from the Washington D.C.-based RAND Corp. found that U.S. and NATO success in Afghanistan hinges in great part on the ability of the international community to build up the police force. The study said that Afghan police now are "corrupt, incompetent, underresourced and often loyal to local commanders rather than to the central government."
"We know the challenges confronting the Afghan police are huge, and we know that everyone's talking about the military, the military, let's send more troops in," Noble said. "We're saying we should be devoting as much effort, if not more, to the police, because once the military leaves the police are going to be left to defend the rule of law."