Guardian Angels in Afghanistan

The Pentagon's attempt to reduce the growing trend of "green on blue" violence.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

An increase in Afghan security forces attacking their NATO counterparts -- or what have been called "green on blue" incidents -- is prompting the U.S. military to implement a host of new safeguards, top Pentagon officials announced Tuesday, Aug. 14.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will increase intelligence and counterintelligence efforts aimed at stopping attacks before they occur, establish forensic teams that will analyze attacks, improve the vetting process for Afghan security forces, and require that a NATO service member, dubbed a "guardian angel," observe any gathering of NATO and Afghan troops. The guardian angel will "watch people's backs and hopefully identify people that would be involved in those attacks," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters during an Aug. 14 briefing at the Pentagon.

There have been 27 green-on-blue incidents so far in 2012, which have led to 37 deaths, according to ISAF. There have been several such attacks in the last week, killing three NATO troops and wounding two.

An increase in Afghan security forces attacking their NATO counterparts — or what have been called "green on blue" incidents — is prompting the U.S. military to implement a host of new safeguards, top Pentagon officials announced Tuesday, Aug. 14.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will increase intelligence and counterintelligence efforts aimed at stopping attacks before they occur, establish forensic teams that will analyze attacks, improve the vetting process for Afghan security forces, and require that a NATO service member, dubbed a "guardian angel," observe any gathering of NATO and Afghan troops. The guardian angel will "watch people’s backs and hopefully identify people that would be involved in those attacks," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters during an Aug. 14 briefing at the Pentagon.

There have been 27 green-on-blue incidents so far in 2012, which have led to 37 deaths, according to ISAF. There have been several such attacks in the last week, killing three NATO troops and wounding two.

The safeguards will be implemented by ISAF commander Gen. John Allen. "General Allen is meeting with the [Afghan] security minister to talk about further steps to take in order to protect against these attacks, and he’s also meeting with the village elders," said Panetta. "These are the people who usually vouch for these people — they have to sign something that vouches for the character of these individuals. He’s going back to them to ensure that that’s being done properly."

At the briefing, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that, as part of his upcoming tour of the Middle East, he will travel to Kabul next week to talk with Allen about how to protect against what he called an "insider attack threat." "I think you’ll hear us start talking about these incidents more as ‘insider attack’ rather than ‘green on blue’ because that understates the effect this is having on the ANSF [Afghan national security forces] itself. They’re suffering casualties from the same trend that we’re suffering" from, said Dempsey.

Allen will also meet with all his one-star generals in Afghanistan to discuss ways to end the attacks. Meanwhile, Afghan defense officials will hold a summit to discuss how to fight the problem. Dempsey noted that the Afghan security forces have "discharged hundreds of soldiers who did indicate that some of these young men had the capability to be radicalized." These soldiers were known to have consumed terrorist propaganda or frequently traveled back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Dempsey.

The attacks may cause ISAF to increase the ratio of NATO mentors to Afghan troops being trained, according to Maj. Gen. Tod Wolters, who was in charge of the Air Force’s presence in Afghanistan from May 2011 until May 2012.

While "99.9 percent" of coalition troops and Afghan security forces share a high level of trust, "it just takes one green-on-blue incident where some yo-yo goes off and does something stupid, and now you start to levy some uncertainty on that trust that was established," Wolters said in an Aug. 14 talk at the Air Force Association. "That’s a big deal because it forces us to go back and look at the math equation as far as the ratio is concerned in this Security Force Assistance model."

The model Wolters referred to is the coalition’s plan to shift from counterinsurgency warfare, in which NATO troops lead combat missions, toward supporting Afghan troops who lead and conduct missions. This shift is critical as NATO prepares to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by 2014.

"Any time you have one of these green-on-blue incidents, as you can well imagine, you’re probably a little less prone to have one coalition member support 50 Afghan security members. You might be in a position where you desire to have five or six coalition members," said Wolters, noting that these were examples, not the actual ratios. Changing the ratio even slightly, Wolters added, could affect how quickly the United States withdraws troops.

While Panetta did say that the Taliban has begun to use insider attacks to hit NATO forces with increasing frequency, he was quick to point out that there are multiple kinds of attackers. "It’s clear that there’s no one source that is producing these attacks," said Panetta. "Some of it is individuals who for one reason or another are upset and suddenly take it out" on NATO troops; other attacks are conducted by "self-radicalized" Afghans with no ties to the Taliban or by insurgent groups that have infiltrated the Afghan security forces.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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