The South Asia Channel

The Afghan trust deficit

*UPDATE* 3/12/2012 In the first version of this piece, the “Trust Deficit” of the title referred to only the lack of trust between U.S. forces and their Afghan military trainees. In light of yesterday’s events it is important to note that the trust gap runs both ways.  The appalling events of yesterday, coming on the ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

*UPDATE* 3/12/2012

In the first version of this piece, the “Trust Deficit” of the title referred to only the lack of trust between U.S. forces and their Afghan military trainees. In light of yesterday’s events it is important to note that the trust gap runs both ways.  The appalling events of yesterday, coming on the heels of earlier incidents have reinforced a host of existing negative perceptions about the behavior and intentions of the Western powers in Afghanistan. The negative atmosphere will make it even more difficult for our Afghan allies in Kabul to make the necessary compromises to accommodate a long-term NATO and U.S. presence. Meanwhile, domestic political opinion appears to be shaky, with Republican presidential candidates now openly opining about a more rapid withdrawal. Presidential leadership was needed last week. It is even more critical now. Something must be done to arrest this downward spiral in Afghanistan, which the Taliban are no doubt watching with glee.


This past week’s wave of killings in Afghanistan of U.S. military personnel by their nominal Afghan allies has exposed a key weakness in the NATO and U.S. transition “train and advise” strategy that will allow the large NATO units to disengage.  Simply put, the tactic of putting small groups of experienced, seasoned soldiers with Afghan security forces to both train and provide access to NATO resource-such as intelligence and airpower-assumes that the two sides have enough mutual trust and respect to work together.  It also assumes that the fratricidal violence between these two allied groups (Afghan and NATO) will be sufficiently low-preferably zero-that domestic support can be maintained in Washington and other capitals long enough for real changes to take root.  Both of these assumptions are now questionable.

While some of these killings may be the work of Taliban infiltrators, defense officials privately say that well over half appear instead to be in response to a perceived personal insult or-as in at least some of last week’s incidents-in response to an insult to Islam.  Upon reflection, this should not surprise us.  This is a society in which Afghan males occasionally kill their own daughters and sisters in order to maintain personal and family honor.  How much easier to kill a Western trainer for similar reasons?

American and other NATO forces react as one would expect in this situation; they become risk averse.  They spend less time with Afghans, avoid being alone with Afghans, and retreat to their compatriots.  This understandable behavior makes the situation worse, further isolating the Westerners from the contact that might permit cultural understanding and reduce the friction between the two sides.

While markedly worse of late, the risk to trainers from their Afghan colleagues is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan.  Yet the advisory strategy has moved forward despite the clear vulnerability of the people asked to undertake it.  It is not clear whether anyone identified this vulnerability and senior leaders decided it was an acceptable risk, or whether the influx of Iraq veterans bringing their “lessons learned” skewed the perception of what was possible, as there were very few of these “green on blue” incidents with trainers in the much more developed Iraq.  This vulnerability has been discussed sotte vocce among the Afghan policy community for several months now, with no one wanting to expose the weaknesses in the plan or the long-term difficulties of this latest variant of the counter insurgency strategy.  There is clearly no longer any secret to keep.

Regardless of how we arrived at this point, we now have a stubborn problem.  The President, administration officials, and senior military leaders are saying the diplomatic things they have to say, but all realize the severity of the situation.  No doubt measures are being put in place to try to alleviate the most obvious vulnerabilities and increase “force protection” throughout Afghanistan, even though this is completely at odds with the concept of an advisory mission.  But the bottom line is that throughout the country, the NATO and Afghan forces are intertwined.  To try to deny all opportunities for future attacks is simply not possible.

The issue is that no one appears to have a viable Plan B at this point.  One can lament the set of circumstances that has brought us to this point, but that changes the facts not at all.  The current strategy no longer appears workable, given the lack of trust now made apparent, not to mention domestic support.  And yet the only easily discernible alternative-a rapid disengagement from Afghanistan-appears even worse, or at least an explicit admission of failure, without any fig leaf of “transition” as NATO departs, not to mention humanitarian concerns for the Afghans.

The American people appear to be demanding real answers to hard questions.  What are our interests in Afghanistan?  Why are we still there now that Osama bin Laden is dead?  Why do our Afghan allies hate us enough to kill us when we are there to help them?  Why are we supporting a government that can’t keep its agents from killing ours and which appears to be corrupt?  To date, the answers coming from the Administration and the war’s supporters in Congress do not appear to be answering these questions, instead maintaining that the fratricide issue is manageable and that we can stay the course.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is a “wicked problem” that appears to be getting more tangled by the day.  Our presence is not simply a part of the solution but part of the problem, creating an inexorable spiral from which we are struggling to escape with both our dignity and our strategy intact.  The refusal to acknowledge the recalculation of risk at both the senior and individual levels in Afghanistan refuses to acknowledge the diminishing likelihood that the “train and advise” plan will work.  The Afghans will notice when senior mentors show up with their security detail or when more junior ones keep their weapons closer and their guard up.

The President owes the American people a clear, concise explanation of our policy and why the costs are worth paying; the buck does stop with him.  If the President believes that trust can be restored between the Afghans trying to make a country and the people of good will we have asked to help them, then he must say so and be willing to risk the political storms that will follow if the costs-fiscal and human-increase.   If he instead believes the new situation requires adjusting the policy, then so be it.  When the assumptions on which plans are based turn out to be false, this is the logical next step.  This may be politically inopportune, risking accusation either of giving up our allies and/or interests in Afghanistan or of selling out our dead.

In short, the “train and advise” strategy that is the current U.S. and NATO policy no longer appears feasible.  The Commander in Chief, after serious deliberations with Congress, needs to posit a workable strategy the properly weights national interests and then plan to follow it through as a responsible party rather than turning to demagoguery.  There are soldiers dying in Afghanistan executing an unclear policy and we all owe them more than that.

Douglas A. Ollivant, a Senior National Security Studies Fellow at New America Foundation, was the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to the Commander, Regional Command East, 2010-2011.

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