The South Asia Channel

Stepping back to move forward

Partnership is an essential aspect of our counterinsurgency strategy. It is also an indispensible element of the transition of responsibility to Afghans. – COMISAF Tactical Directive, Revision 3, 7 July 2011  This week, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan suspended joint operations below the battalion level in response to an increase in ...

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages

Partnership is an essential aspect of our counterinsurgency strategy. It is also an indispensible element of the transition of responsibility to Afghans.

– COMISAF Tactical Directive, Revision 3, 7 July 2011 

This week, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan suspended joint operations below the battalion level in response to an increase in "green-on-blue" attacks against international coalition forces by their Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) partners. The decision comes on the heels of the release of a movie that has inflamed the Muslim world, as well as two "insider attacks" last weekend that resulted in the deaths of six coalition members. At face value, the decision is understandable. Yet considering the importance that ISAF has placed on joint operations as the lynchpin of our strategy to withdraw from Afghanistan, one has to ask, "what kind of calculus goes into making this decision? And what impact will this have on our combat operations going forward?" 

In terms of the calculus that goes into making such a decision, ISAF leaders had to weigh the safety of coalition troops with a decrease in combat effectiveness.  But with 51 coalition deaths at the hands of their ANSF partners (also referred to as "green-on-blue" attacks) this year alone the decision seems prudent.

There is precedence for such action, as military units have been known to conduct "stand downs," — a pause in training or combat operations — in order to address a serious issue.  In this case, halting joint operations allows ISAF leaders at all levels to evaluate their security posture, establish standard operating procedures to deal with insider attacks, and to imprint a mindset in all service members that "yes, the ANSF are your partners, but be alert and prepared 24/7." 

[For the record, the problem of insider attacks is not out of the ordinary nor is it unique to Afghanistan. As a Special Forces instructor, I used to train U.S. Special Forces personnel to work with indigenous forces and to expect that some may turn on them during the course of training or combat.  And recently, on a research trip to Somalia, I was almost killed in an insider attack that took the life of the man with whom I was talking.]

A stoppage in joint operations also sends a strong message to our Afghan partners to get their act together and do their part to stop insider attacks.  After all, a unit’s best defense against an attack is often the information provided to them by those who know it is coming. There is a reasonable expectation by coalition forces that Afghan soldiers and policemen will get wind of an attack prior to its execution — and that they will take the necessary steps to inform their Coalition partners and/or thwart the attack themselves. So consider this a "stand down" in reverse, in that the coalition is forcing the ANSF to evaluate how they intend to address insider attacks.

More importantly, the decision to stop joint patrols recognizes that the enemy has found a weakness and that we can count on them to exploit it vigorously. If we expect the enemy to encourage more insider attacks and to exploit other instances of Muslim outrage, then we had better prepare for it. And right now, we are not prepared.

That said, keep in mind that a sizeable number of insider attacks are generated not by the Taliban but by disgruntled ANSF who feel that they have been disrespected or dishonored.

In terms of what impact this will have on our combat operations going forward, that obviously depends on whether or not we resume joint operations. 

If we get back patrolling with the ANSF, expect two things: that our combat activities will have adjusted to consider insider attacks; and that insider attacks will still continue. Think of it like an Improvised Explosive Devise (IED): initially, we were unprepared to deal with that threat. Then in short order, we dramatically increased our capabilities to detect and defeat the IED.  And yet, IEDs still keep coming.  As we adapt, so does our enemy. Same situation with insider attacks: the risk is inherent and it will remain.

That said, one can expect ISAF and the ANSF to do a better job vetting ANSF personnel, using "guardian angels" (troops whose duty is to be ever-vigilant for an insider attack, especially during hours of darkness), and increasing security on Forward Operating Bases. Surprisingly, coalition troops may be encouraged to get even closer to their ANSF counterparts in order to increase information gathering opportunities and to decrease the chances of disgruntled soldier attacks.

If we decide not to resume joint operations, then expect a decrease in the effectiveness of combat operations — at least initially. 

Coalition forces conducting unilateral operations will certainly be challenged, as they rely on their ANSF counterparts’ language ability and cultural sensitivity to gain access to information, increase situational awareness, and decrease the chance of unproductive interactions with the local populace. 

The ANSF will suffer too, as they depend on the coalition for combat power and key enablers such as civil affairs, information operations, quick reaction forces, aviation and fire support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), medical evacuation and logistics.

But at this point let us acknowledge the fact that this is not the coalition’s war to win; it is the Afghans’. Translation: combat effectiveness — as measured by the coalition — may drop.  But the shock of being forced to shoulder the burden of winning this war may encourage the ANSF to start taking full responsibility for this fight. It most certainly will force the ANSF to adopt tactics, techniques and procedures that may be better suited to their organic capabilities – not a bad thing when one considers that the coalition will not always be there with their combat power and enablers.

The bottom line here is that the coalition is leaving, and by ceasing joint operations the ANSF would be forced to deal with that reality sooner rather than later.

To be sure, there are many Afghan Army units that are ready for the challenge. An example: 2/2/205, an Afghan Army battalion in Zabul Province that was as good or better than some of the coalition forces that I observed in my two and a half years in Afghanistan.

At the end of the day, the decision to stop joint patrols seems to be less about telling the ANSF we do not and will never trust them and more about deep-diving solutions to addressing insider attacks. 

By increasing security and awareness the coalition can decrease its casualties and increase troops’ confidence in going into battle with the ANSF at their side.  And that is important, for as a friend in Afghanistan told me, "there is a difference between dying in combat and being murdered by those who are fighting alongside you."

Roger D. Carstens is a former Special Forces officer and a Senior Research Fellow at New America Foundation.

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