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What caused the Afghan government cyber-attack?

 

Khaama Press Dec 27 2014 
While the motive of the recent cyber-attack on Afghan government websites is still not known, the incident has certainly put the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) on the spot and the administration and management of the IT programs and projects are under scrutiny. 
A number of Afghan government websites were compromised on December 19, where a JavaScript file was modified on the Content Delivery Network (CDN), allowing malicious java applet to run on the webserver affecting the visitors of the websites. The affected government agencies included Afghan Embassy in Australia, Herat Province Government, Office of Administrative Affairs and Council of Ministers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Commerce and Industries, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

MCIT officials released a press release three days after the incident, and a day after the US cyber security company ThreatConnect, had released news about the incident. ThreatConnect provided details and evidence on the attack, it went further to link the attack with the government of China.

The company also related the attack explicitly with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who was meeting with Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah during that time. The linking and blaming by ThreatConnect indicates the company’s aggressive and political position in this incidence. Afghan technology civil societies also raised questions on why the US company performed penetration testing on Afghan National Data Center. 
Although this attack did not pose significant implications to the infrastructure nor a severe data leakage has been reported, however it did draw attention of many civil societies and IT technologists of the country, to the hardware and software infrastructure in the country, the administration of the ministry, the technical capacity of the engineers and as wellthe policies and strategies set by the government for the development and adoption of Information Technology. 
Shortly after the incident, MCIT officials tried to detract citizens’ attention from the severity of the incident by stating that maintaining 100% security was not possible anywhere. Among other concerns that the officials showed, two important issues were raised in order to mitigate the problem in the future. The first ‘solution’ included an improved compensation system for the IT staff in the ministry and the second was the possibility of outsourcing their programs to a company outside of the ministry or possibly outside of the country. As an expert in the field, these are red flags in the priorities set by our officials in tackling the incident.

It was expected by the officials to take responsibility for their failure and work towards a more realistic operational plan in providing strong cyber protection to the citizens and their data. The request for further financial support to IT projects might be truthful but it is not timely, given that no immediate solutions have been provided to the issue. 
Information security practices in an organization requires global standards set by a number of global organizations, such as ISO 27001 & 27002, which ensures that the organization has the processes in place to secure its data. Unfortunately the MCIT does not hold this standard but these practices are within the human skills and budget available to them. The practice of ensuring multiple layered server signing in feature, the practice of providing instructions and guidelines in protecting server access passwords and other authentication methods are within their capacity but perhaps not their priority.

The question of outsourcing the national data center service is again not timely and most certainly the priorities have been confused. It would have been less costly and more realistic if the government data center was outsourced when we didn’t have the infrastructure establish and then slowly bring the technologies in to the country and work towards developing the human capacity of the ministry. 
The implications of this incident might not be big but it has taken our attention to the capacity of the administration and the processes established in the organization. The administration should set their short term and long term goals to address the issue.

 

Implementing long term strategies of outsourcing or increasing compensation is not going to provide a workaround or a quick fix to the current vulnerable networks. Afghan university graduates and self-learned IT technologists have the capacity to provide the technological solutions to such incidents. MCIT administration need to develop a strategy to work together with the students in order to develop their skills and also work towards providing equal recruitment opportunity to its citizens.

Taliban Are Nearing Control of Key District

The New York Times 06 September, 2014
Local Afghan officials say more than 200 police officers and soldiers have been killed during a fierce Taliban offensive in Helmand Province that has lasted all summer and now threatens to overwhelm a key district.
Officials at the national level have downplayed the violence and even, in some cases, flatly denied that there is a problem. But local military, police and government officials, including two Afghan generals, have said in recent days that they are unsure their forces can continue to hold out against the offensive, which has been underway since June in Sangin district in northern Helmand and in neighboring Musa Qala, unless they get more support from national authorities and international forces.

Authorities are particularly worried about Musa Qala, a traditional Taliban stronghold and a source of revenue from the lucrative opium poppy trade. “The situation is deteriorating and the Taliban are almost in the bazaar,” the governor of Musa Qala district, Haji-Mohammad Sharif, said Friday night. “If the situation remains the same, the district will soon fall to the hands of the Taliban.”

In all, the general said, 71 Afghan National Army soldiers have been killed and 214 wounded since June, while 159 police officers have been killed and 219 wounded in Sangin District. That total of 230 deaths would exceed the number of British and American marines killed in Sangin during the entire war, and both countries lost more military personnel in Sangin than in any other Afghan district.
“The total casualties in the Sangin battle is 900 including civilians,” Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand Province, said on Saturday. “Around 150 would be Afghan security forces.” He would not say how many of those casualties were fatalities. Mr. Zwak said that Taliban insurgents had been on the verge of attacking the Musa Qala center in recent days but have now been beaten back, which the local governor disputed.
In Musa Qala, according to the governor there, 50 police officers have been killed or wounded.
A spokesman for the coalition, Maj. Paul L. Greenberg of the Marine Corps, said air support had been given to Afghan forces in Sangin. “ISAF has received those requests and ISAF has provided aviation support accordingly in Sangin District over the past several months, to include support over the past several weeks,” he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, said the insurgents were using more ground assaults in northern Helmand because they no longer had to worry about airstrikes from American and British forces
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Afghanistan Civilian Casualties Hit Record High

News July 9, 2014
A new United Nations report finds a record number of civilians have been killed and injured in Afghanistan in the first half of this year. The report blames most of the 24 percent increase in civilian casualties on the Taliban.
It attributes the worsening situation for civilians to the changing nature of conflict in Afghanistan, saying ground combat among the warring parties has now surpassed improvised explosive devices as the leading cause of conflict-related death and injury to Afghan civilians.
"During the first half of 2014, over 1,000 kids were either injured or killed in Afghanistan, which is a 30 percent increase compared to last year," said Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the U.N. Human Rights Office. "And similarly, you have many more women being injured. Sixty-four of them were injured during the first six months of 2014 because this ground engagement is really taking place in public places, sometimes at the very home of ordinary people."
Civilian deaths and injuries caused by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire in ground engagements have jumped dramatically, according to the report. In the first six months of the year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documents 4,853 civilian casualties, including 1,564 civilian deaths.
It says ground engagements have caused two of every five civilian casualties in 2014, accounting for 39 percent of all civilian casualties. Improvised explosive devices used by anti-government elements as the second leading cause of civilian casualties this year, with suicide and complex attacks by these groups as the third leading cause of deaths and injuries. The report attributes three quarters of all civilian casualties to the anti-government forces.
Pouilly notes the Taliban has publicly claimed responsibility for 76 attacks on military targets, as well as 69 attacks that deliberately targeted civilians. She says the victims include tribal elders, civilian government employees and civilians simply sitting in restaurants and other public places.
It attributes 9 percent of all civilian casualties this year to pro-government forces, 8 percent to Afghan national security forces and 1 percent to international forces.

Afghans Laud, Rights Groups Concerned By 'Take No Prisoners' Orders

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty August 24, 2014
"Take no prisoners." Those are the strict orders being handed down by a number of powerful army and police chiefs across Afghanistan. Afghan security forces have been instructed to kill militants on the battlefield instead of taking them prisoner and transferring them for prosecution.
Many Afghans, critical of the government's perceived soft stance against militants, have lauded the move. But the "take no prisoners" orders are worrying human rights groups, who say they could violate international law.
Aminullah Amarkhail, the security chief of the northern province of Baghlan, describes the judicial process in Afghanistan as "corrupt," saying militants who have been detained, tried, and imprisoned in Baghlan in the past have been set free under dubious circumstances and many have returned to the battlefield.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Amarkhail suggested that his forces were specifically targeting foreign militants, although various news agencies reported him as saying his men were going after all militants.
General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, is another who has given his forces an order to wipe out militants on the battlefield.
"I'm thankful for my forces for killing them all and not leaving their fates to the courts which simply demand a bribe [for their release]," says Raziq. "The good news is that they [militants] will all be destroyed. My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive."
The men have not revealed the circumstances in which the militants have been killed, and their vaguely worded comments have opened room for interpretation. Are the orders to kill militants during battle or to execute them after they are detained? That difference has a huge bearing on the legality of the actions.
"When Afghan forces are fighting the Taliban then the militants are military targets and there is no legal issue," says Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher for Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "It's once a combatant is no longer a combatant -- when he's taken prisoner or he's wounded and can no longer fight -- then under the International Humanitarian Law it is prohibited to kill a captured prisoner."

'Dangerous' Statements
Gossman says it would be "very disturbing" if Amarkhail and Raziq have ordered their men to kill captured Taliban fighters instead of taking them prisoner. But she says it is a longstanding issue.
"We certainly have evidence that these commanders have been engaged in extrajudicial executions, torture, and deaths in custody," says Gossman. "The real problem is that there haven't been any prosecutions of any of these people for these kinds of abuses."
There have been no public comments from the presidential palace on the issue.
Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundation who works on conflict-related detentions in Afghanistan, says the statements from Raziq and Amarkhail amount to orders for impunity for those who might commit these kinds of violations.
"Statements like this are dangerous because if they're vague it gives an implicit license to commanders and sub-commanders and their personnel in the security forces to engage in actions that would be violations of the laws of war," he says.
Last month Raziq was summoned to Kabul after making public his "take no prisoner" orders. Afghan media have speculated that he has been forced to resign, a scenario that has led thousands of Afghans to express their support for the police chief.
The Afghan National Army's (ANA) official Facebook page, "Supporting the Afghan National Army," uploaded a picture of Raziq on August 14 with a message saying: "Tensions between General Raziq and the president about the killing of Taliban fighters on the battlefield might result in Raziq's resignation. Are you ready to support the esteemed General Raziq?"
The post, which has accumulated over 6,000 likes, has attracted hundreds of comments in the past several days, with many in support of the controversial police chief.
Many Facebook users simply replied with an emphatic "Yes" or "Down with the Taliban."
Some lawmakers have also extended their support. "Considering the current situation in Afghanistan, I think that, if we do not treat the terrorists in the same way as they treat our forces, the situation will get even worse," said Zalmai Mujadidi, an MP from the northern province of Badakhshan, earlier this month.

'Enemies Of Our Country'
Naheed Farid, an MP from the western Herat Province, said Kabul should not get involved in the matter. "The police chiefs are present in the district and know that local people are being killed [by the Taliban]. Local commanders are closer to the local people than those in the presidential palace," she said earlier this month.
The "take no prisoners' orders have been employed by a growing number of security chiefs as their forces face a sustained, large-scale Taliban offensive. Observers say an unusually high number of insurgents have carried out major attacks in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, and Nuristan in recent months.
The violence has been unremitting this fighting season. During the fasting month of Ramadan, when violence traditionally recedes, there was actually an escalation of violence. Since then, insurgent groups based in Pakistan's tribal areas, displaced by Islamabad's military offensive in the region, have made their way across the porous border into Afghanistan.
Afghan forces have been largely successful in fending off the attacks, but they have become increasingly stretched and pinned back. The job of containing the Taliban has been made harder by the withdrawal of international combat troops this year.
"One of the most critical [changes on the battlefield] is the reduced NATO air support and attacks against insurgents," says Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank. "This allows a higher degree of freedom for insurgents to gather in big numbers of fighters without fear of being attacked by NATO warplanes. This has created a logistics, transport, and supply burden on the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF]."