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Sergeant Lee Peters is a Scene of Crime Officer with the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch and one of only 5 practitioners qualified in forensic evidence recovery. (Cpl Laura Bibby/Cpl Laura Bibby)
Sergeant Lee Peters is a Scene of Crime Officer with the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch and one of only 5 practitioners qualified in forensic evidence recovery. (Cpl Laura Bibby/Cpl Laura Bibby)

CSI Afghanistan

Canadian Forces bring forensics to the battlefield Add to ...

When U.S. troops came to the village of Armul in eastern Afghanistan in June, 2007, there wasn't much left of three insurgents who had been blown up by their own bomb – torn clothes, body parts, a damaged AK-47, bits of metal and blue plastic.

But among the remains was a severed hand.

The soldiers took it back to their base and, using the sensor of a special biometric camera called the HIIDE, scanned the fingertips and retrieved two prints.

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Even in death, the insurgent wouldn’t escape the gigantic biometric net that the U.S. military had cast over the country.

Canada has ended its combat mission and left Kandahar. Other nations are scaling down their presence. A decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is closing in uncertain, ambiguous fashion. But the two major conflicts of the new century have altered military tactics, making them the first forensic wars.

The introduction of scientific methods has reshaped counterinsurgency tactics, mixing police and military work, creating a seamless bridge between evidence collected on the battlefield and courtroom prosecutions years from now. Last May, for example, the FBI arrested an Iraqi refugee in Kentucky, saying his fingerprints matched those on an improvised explosive device a U.S. patrol found in Iraq in 2005.

The bloodshed it suffered in Afghanistan has made Canada, along with the United States, Britain and Australia, a leader in countering IEDs, the French military magazine Doctrine says.

Canada opened its own forensic lab in Kandahar in 2009, one of the few nations with that in-theatre capability.

That facility is now history. But this spring, the Canadian Forces took delivery of a new deployable lab that can be loaded aboard a C-17 transport plane, with its own power generator, plumbing, optical-fibre wiring and supplies of gloves, swabs and evidence bags.

The new lab is fitted for the kind of conflicts Canadian soldiers will face again and again: wars with no front line, battlefields with no clear targets, enemies with no uniforms.

“We take away the enemy’s ability to be invisible in a crowd,” the lab’s commander, Navy Lieutenant Kevin McNamara, said in an interview.

Members of the European Defence Agency have gone a similar path, with their own deployable lab, built in Spain and shipped to Afghanistan this summer under French command.

The Canadian Forces also want to improve its ability to conduct “site exploitation,” the recovery of any items that could yield intelligence – weapons, computers, phones, documents.

National Defence issued last year a call for tenders to train soldiers in site exploitation, showing them how to record fingerprints, scan eyes and extract data from captured cell phones.

CAPTURE AND KILL

Bomb-disposal technicians, the cool-nerved operators chronicled in the film The Hurt Locker, haven’t simply defused IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They also photograph blast scenes, measure craters and test soil samples. They retrieve wires, circuit boards and triggers to reverse-engineer and identify a bomb maker’s technique, the way homicide detectives would reconstruct a killer’s modus operandi.

Canadian bomb-disposal teams, which came to Afghanistan with no formal forensic training, have been collecting fingerprints and DNA since at least 2006, according to Clearing the Way an oral history that Major Mark Gasparotto compiled about his squadron of combat engineers in Afghanistan.

American troops across Iraq and Afghanistan have for a decade photographed faces, scanned eyes, collected fingerprints and swabbed for saliva or blood during patrols, at checkpoints and border crossings, on local conscripts or job seekers, on the bodies of dead enemies, even on populations of entire towns.

The U.S. military now has data on more than 2.2 million people, mostly Iraqis and Afghans, according to Myra Gray, head of the Pentagon’s Biometrics Task Force.

“Every day, thousands of records are collected and sent to either compare against existing records or to store,” she said in a speech last year.

Soldiers on patrols are outfitted with biometric cameras and spray cans of chemicals to test prisoners for explosives residue. The display window on their HIIDE cameras turns from blue to red if the person they screen matches someone on a watch list.

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