Biometrics Play Important Role in Afghanistan

Counter-insurgency warfare is by its very nature an intensive boots-on-the-ground endeavor, but that hasn’t stopped U.S. forces in Afghanistan from leveraging technology in the fight against the Taliban.

Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles prowl the skies over Afghanistan’s mountain passes, deserts and agricultural belts — including Marjah, in Helmand Province, where heavy fighting is now taking place — searching out insurgent groups and intelligence-designated targets.

Land-based high-resolution cameras with infrared and thermal capabilities scan the horizon around bases and isolated outposts for suspicious movement.

Troops on patrol, meanwhile, employ high-tech identification devices to help ferret out terrorist suspects.

“The greatest advantage the insurgent has is that he doesn’t wear a uniform and identify himself as a combatant,” said a senior Marine staff officer with Task Force Leatherneck in Helmand Province. “What this system does is provide an opportunity to identify them through the exploitation of biometric material.”

The Biometric Automated Toolset (BAT) is basically a laptop computer with separate plug-in units that record mug shots, fingerprints and retinal characteristics. Personal data — such as name, date of birth, home village, father’s and grandfather’s names — are entered into the laptop with the biometric data and transmitted to the United States, where the information is permanently entered into a database and cross-checked against previously entered files. Within that database are fingerprints taken from previously detained individuals or from seized arms and munitions caches and improvised explosive devices.

“If there is a match, just as in any criminal database, it would identify the person as a person of interest and whether or not he should be detained immediately,” said the officer who requested anonymity

Troops not carrying a BAT system use a HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment) unit which resembles a camera. A lens captures retinal details while fingerprints are obtained through the use of a top-mounted panel on the device. Troops have to take personal details with pen and paper, but these are later entered into the BAT computer along with the captured images.

Troops using either system download regular suspect watch-list updates.

“The HIIDE is like an iPod, you download your favorite music from a database and then go listen to it,” the officer said. “I take my HIIDE, plug it into the database and download the database and then I’m off and running.”

In Marjah, where thousands of U.S., British and Afghan forces are currently clearing out the last major Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, BAT and HIIDE will come into their own when major clearing operations finish and troops establish a cordon sanitaire of patrol bases around its major population areas.

The details of adult males in villages will recorded and entered into the main BAT database by soldiers on their daily patrols, who will also take normal photographs of the men in front of their homes for easy, daily reference.

“It’s a good tool and no one since I’ve been here has objected to giving us their information,” Marine Corp. Caleb Owens, of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines. “We tell them it’s so we can give them ID cards.”

Marines of 2-2 operate in the Garmser District of Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan. They BAT or HIIDE virtually every adult male in their area of operation and later give them laminated identification cards.

Marines say the information and cards are important in helping them identify who belongs in their area and who doesn’t. And since improvised explosive devices are constantly being planted and found in their area of operation, recorded biometrics such as fingerprints could help turn up suspects.

In other areas of Afghanistan, troops are more selective about who is entered into the database and who is not. In Logar province, for example, soldiers late last year were only recording the information of individuals who acted suspiciously or gave suspicious answers when approached and questioned by soldiers.

In Helmand’s Nawa district, which is next to Marjah, Marines have used both approaches, depending on their unit and command instructions.

“This is not a criminal database by itself, it is a national database, so from this database you can produce all sorts of stuff which are basic population-control measures so you know what you’re up against,” a Marine officer said.

Afghanistan’s population is estimated at more than 28 million and few have any sort of government-issued identification.

The BAT system is not new. In Iraq 2.5 million people were entered into the database, military sources told DefenseNews last year. Included in that number were tens of thousands of Sons of Iraq (SOI) volunteers — many of them former insurgents — who later worked with U.S. and Iraqi troops as neighborhood guards.

Lisa Swan, with the U.S. Army’s Biometric Task Force, told DefenseNews that the BAT system resulted in more than 400 “high-value” suspects being arrested in 2008 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Current figures for the number of individuals entered into the database in Afghanistan were not immediately available.