- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2011

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan — The Afghan man with a grizzled beard puts his life at risk every time he chats with Army Lt. Col. William Chlebowski.

As an informant for the U.S.-led coalition, the middle-aged man — whose name wasn’t disclosed for security reasons — talks to insurgents one day and snitches on them the next.

He’s part of a network of Afghans across the country who tip coalition forces to the location of roadside bombs and weapons caches and share information about what militants are doing and planning.

It’s a dangerous liaison for both sides.

Coalition forces worry about the accuracy of the tips and fear being set up. Informants worry they will be outed and assassinated by the Taliban.

Col. Chlebowski, commander of the 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, is still a little skeptical of the informant he has met dozens of times in the seven months he’s been stationed at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, south of Kabul.

His military intelligence officer thinks the informant should be arrested for his ties to militants, but Col. Chlebowski has decided to take his chances with the Afghan spy.

“The reason I give him the benefit of the doubt is because he has to play both sides, or he’d be dead by now,” Col. Chlebowski said after meeting with the informant for about an hour one Monday in late May.

The informant, who is not paid for his information, said he decided to help the coalition because Americans helped Afghans fight the Soviets in the 1980s.

“During the Soviet time, it was their weapons, their support that helped us,” he said through an interpreter. “It was because of them that we were capable of standing in the face of the Russians. And now that they’re here to fight against terrorism, we are standing in support of them.”

“I do it for my country, for my pride, for my family,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition would not disclose any information about how many Afghan informants work for the coalition, saying it could jeopardize operations or intelligence gathering.

However, Colette Murphy, a coalition spokeswoman, said that most forward operating bases will use local residents to gain insight into their communities.

A senior Western intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said Afghans — including innocent civilians — have been murdered because they were suspected informants for the coalition.

But he said he did not know of any Afghan informants killed because their identities were revealed through WikiLeaks, which has released thousands of secret government documents, including some 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the war.

WikiLeaks has been criticized for not redacting the names of Afghan and Iraqi informants and other information that could put people’s lives at risk.

“Their mortality rate is quite high,” said Robert Riegle, a former senior intelligence officer who worked in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was the same thing in Iraq. We were losing informants all the time.”

Some informants are selfless patriots, but others are opportunists looking for something in return for their cooperation, said Mr. Riegle, who now runs Mission Concepts Inc., a private intelligence firm. He said he was very suspicious of people who walked up and offered information and did not actively recruit local informants in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“In my experience, half of the information you get from them is untruthful — horribly unreliable,” he said.

Col. Chlebowski said that in recent months, his informant persuaded a suspected insurgent to give himself up, making it unnecessary to conduct a night raid on the suspect’s home. He tried to persuade two other suspected insurgents to turn themselves in. They refused but left the province, creating more stability in the informant’s village, the colonel said.

On this visit, which a reporter from the Associated Press sat in on, the colonel pushed him for information about an insurgent terrorizing citizens in another village in northern Logar.

“Who’s that snake head in Zarghonshah that you were going to tell me about?” Col. Chlebowski asked. “If you tell me who it is, maybe I can cut the head off the snake.”

The informant shook his head. “He’s a very bad individual,” he said, sitting on a sofa in the colonel’s office. “People are scared of him.”

He said the man indiscriminately kills Afghan citizens who dare to speak out against him.

“If he will come fight me, I’ll kill him for you,” Col. Chlebowski said. “He hides like a little girl when we come into town.”

Matching the colonel’s bravado, the informant insisted he was not scared of the killer and would try to find someone in Zarghonshah to rat him out.

Col. Chlebowski was dubious about his chances.

“The problem is they don’t have anyone there who has courage. They’re all cowards,” Col. Chlebowski said. “They’re scared. They won’t stand up.”

The informant proposed a solution. He could use a few coalition development projects planned for his own village to convince people in Zarghonshah that there was good reason to align themselves with the coalition and Afghan government.

Col. Chlebowski wasn’t convinced that would work either.

He said he had decided to put potential U.S. development projects in Zarghonshah on hold.

Just days before, coalition forces there found a cache of explosive material drying in the sun. While the troops were waiting for a team to arrive and destroy the cache, insurgents tried to quickly bury a homemade bomb on a road the troops use to leave the area. They were run off before they could finish the job.

Before leaving the base on his latest visit, the informant privately told Col. Chlebowski the location of a new remote-controlled roadside bomb planted on a route frequented by coalition troops and asked the colonel for a few favors.

Could he have a satellite phone so he could call the coalition for help if he were attacked or ambushed when cell service in the area was down?

“I don’t even have a satellite phone,” Col. Chlebowski replied.

One more thing: The informant said his friend, who hadn’t done anything wrong, has been repeatedly picked up by coalition forces.

“It’s because he looks similar to someone we’re after, unfortunately,” the colonel said. “My soldiers see a picture and confuse him with the person we’re after. I do apologize for that.”

As the meeting ended, the informant reached in a plastic sack and pulled out gifts for the colonel, three brown blankets, a traditional Afghan hat decorated with white sequins and a long scarf.

Col. Chlebowski put on the hat — first backward, then sideways, then correctly — and the informant who was well-practiced in the art of turban making, quickly swirled the scarf into a headdress for the colonel.

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