Napolitano Visit Aimed at Beefing Up Afghan Border Security, Customs
By Mike Levine
Published December 31, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan — During an unannounced New Year’s Eve visit to Afghanistan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano traveled to the country’s mountainous border region near Pakistan to see first-hand her department’s efforts in the war effort there.
“Seeing is worth a thousand words,” Napolitano said after the tour, to which Fox News was granted exclusive access. “This all involves safety and security in this part of the world. And that is something that has direct connection as well to the United States.”
She described her department’s role in war-torn Afghanistan as a “complement” to the military operations there.
Her agency has about two dozen officials in Afghanistan, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Customs and Border Protection officers, and Border Patrol agents. Many are training Afghan security forces to manage their country’s borders.
Although the Afghan government receives most of its money from foreign allies, customs fees and tariffs account for more than half of the money Afghanistan generates on its own. Increasing that revenue flow is a top priority for U.S. officials working to stabilize the chaotic country.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano eats lunch Dec. 31 with troops at Torkham base near the Pakistan border.
Earlier Friday, Napolitano and her staff met with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Hours later, a fleet of military helicopters took Napolitano, her staff and a Fox News crew to Torkham Forward Operating Base, about five miles from Torkham border crossing, a main access point for supplies coming through Pakistan to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
At the base, she ate lunch with some of the troops who protect her agency’s officials in the war zone. She called it an “honor.”
The trip to the border region culminated with a helicopter flight over the Torkham border crossing. Getting to the crossing by ground was deemed too dangerous.
In May, according to Pakistani reports, security forces at Torkham crossing “defused an explosive device fitted to a container taking supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan.”
Nearly three months ago, Torkham crossing was shut down for 11 days by Pakistan after a U.S. helicopter strike in the border region killed two Pakistani soldiers. The crossing was reopened after American officials apologized, but during the shutdown about 150 trucks were destroyed and many people were injured as they became easy targets.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials described the Torkham area as generally not hostile toward the U.S. military.
Officials said the growing Homeland Security presence in Afghanistan is the product of an effort launched under the Obama administration. Officials say it is part of a “vision” from the late U.S. envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, who sought to include more federal agencies in the war and nation building effort here.
In early November, customs and border officers and agents from Homeland Security’s investigations unit conducted a one-week workshop for 44 officers from Afghan law-enforcement agencies, training them on the interdiction and investigation of cash smuggling. Such criminal activity funds terrorist and criminal organizations.
In January 2010, a “Customs Academy” opened in Kabul, training as many as 200 recruits in an effort to turn the Afghanistan Customs Department into “a modern service,” as the U.S. embassy put it in a press release.
In addition to the Homeland Security officials already on the ground in Afghanistan, several more are expected to land there over next month. Those ranks don’t include the more than 50 former CBP officials hired privately to support the DHS mission there.
Napolitano was expected to ring in the New Year with U.S. personnel at the embassy in Kabul. A bonfire was being prepared as of early Friday evening.
The New Year’s Eve trip was Napolitano’s first to Afghanistan since joining the Obama cabinet.
She was in the country once as Arizona governor.