KABUL (Reuters) - The departure of most foreign troops from Afghanistan has left an intelligence-gathering vacuum that facilitates Taliban attacks, the head of the Afghan spy agency said on Wednesday.
Summoned to parliament to explain a surge in suicide bombings and commando-style assaults across Afghanistan, including in the fortified capital Kabul, intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil blamed a loss of manpower and technology.
“There were some 150,000 foreign troops in every corner of the country, equipped with drone air power which is no more,” Nabil told lawmakers.
Some foreign drone strikes still take place in Afghanistan but the NATO-led coalition ends its combat mission this month, withdrawing all but 12,500 troops and leaving the 350,000-member Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency.
Nabil cited the example of the violent southern province of Helmand where hi-tech surveillance balloons used by U.S.-led forces were removed as foreign bases shut.
“There were 65 spy balloons in Helmand that could detect if someone was carrying a weapon on the back of a motorbike,” Nabil said, adding he now relied on six agents to gather intelligence in one vast district in the province, a Taliban stronghold that has seen some of this year’s most deadly attacks.
In Helmand’s capital on Wednesday, militants detonated a suicide bomb, then stormed a bank branch packed with government employees collecting their salaries, killing six people.
This year has been the deadliest of the 13-year war. More than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died, a record high since the U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
Towering concrete blast walls and check points have mushroomed around embassies and ministries in Kabul since the beginning of 2014, partly in response to the loss of security networks that helped prevent attacks.
“This is a natural consequence of forces going home,” said a foreign security source in Kabul. “We have fallen off a technological cliff.”
The source added he was confident Afghans would improve intelligence and finally defeat the insurgents.
Nabil said that of 26 entry points into Kabul only four were guarded and that 107 “terrorist cells” operated in the vicinity.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has vowed to improve coordination between police, troops and the intelligence agency.
But Ghani has still not announced a cabinet two months after taking office in a power-sharing agreement with his rival Abdullah Abdullah, a situation critics say has left Afghanistan adrift while the Taliban crank up violence.
Editing by Gareth Jones