Trust Fall

What's behind the inside attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan? The 2014 timeline for withdrawal.

JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images
JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images

Eleven years into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, both Americans and Afghans seem to be left with more questions than answers. In just the past few weeks, the joint war effort has seen a steady drumbeat of setbacks: A disastrous insurgent attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion in Helmand cost the lives of two Marines and over $180 million in damage. Eight civilian Afghan women were killed in an airstrike on an insurgent position in Logar province. Twelve people, mostly foreign aid workers, were killed on Sept. 18 by a female suicide bomber in Kabul. And the last fortnight saw four more "green-on-blue" attacks, including the Sept. 30 clash in which both Americans and Afghans were killed, bringing the total to 53 coalition lives lost this year at the hands of their supposed allies. 

In the aftermath of such events, many onlookers have taken an understandably grim view — concluding either that the United States has outstayed its welcome and this is a signal for it to leave (faster), or that the cultural divide is simply so large that an ultimate breakdown in relations is inevitable. These are the talking points the enemies of Afghanistan and the United States are busy propagating and would be all too happy for us to believe.

Instead, the recent acceleration in green-on-blue killings is a tragic consequence of broader issues and misconceptions about the Afghan conflict. It is a symptom of the trust crisis between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), stemming from the U.S. announcement of its withdrawal by the end of 2014 — regardless of mission completion. It exposes how the enemy continues to rigorously exploit insider attacks for their psychological, rather than purely physical, effects. An effective response begins by recognizing green-on-blue attacks as a symptom of the pre-existing trust crisis, addressing the psychological vulnerabilities they represent, and redoubling efforts to restore trust through cross-cultural engagement. If we reject enemy propaganda and deal with these underlying issues, this moment of crisis can become an opportunity for renewed partnership.

Green-on-blue attacks are not the cause of a trust crisis between the United States and its Afghan partners, but a sobering indication of the loss of Afghan confidence in America as a trustworthy partner. Policy responses to the recent spate of insider attacks have focused on treating the symptom — slowing Afghan training, revetting thousands of Afghan local police, or scaling back joint patrols. While some of these measures represent positive steps, they will not be effective — and may actually be counterproductive — without addressing the underlying issues. We must instead work to reverse the damaging impact of communications about the 2014 withdrawal and focus on a clear, shared vision beyond that date.

Everyday conversations among average Afghans are laced with misgivings about the future. The Taliban have a clear patron: Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. They have a safe haven within Pakistan. They have a clear vision of a post-ISAF Afghanistan and communicate that vision clearly. But what about the reform-minded Afghans who stood with the United States for over a decade and are devoted to our mutual interests? They do not have a clear patron, as everyone knows the international forces are leaving. They do not have a safe haven; everyone knows how hard it is to get visas or asylum in the West, especially the United States. And they do not have a clear vision of what a post-ISAF Afghanistan would look like. Subtle messages from ISAF about "security transition" and "enduring partnership" have not been heard, or are suspect in light of the overwhelming message: "WE ARE LEAVING." Afghans do not resent Americans for being occupiers, but rather for leaving the job unfinished, and leaving the door open for the real occupiers to stroll back in.

Hundreds of survey data points and conversations with Afghans (particularly women and educated youth) reveal a vehement rejection the notion of returning to an oppressive regime under extremists like the Taliban. Afghans widely see the Taliban as a puppet of neocolonialist Pakistan, seeking an unstable and vulnerable Afghanistan as a source of "strategic depth." These Afghans recognize and appreciate the sacrifices made by uniformed members of 49 nations in their re-establishment as a healthy (or at least recovering), self-ruling nation. The enemies of the United States and Afghanistan want us all to believe that Americans are occupiers, and all that is needed for peace is for troops to leave.

Success, however, is well within our grasp if we do not fall for that ruse. Despite strained relationships, both the Afghan government and the Afghan people express a strong commitment to and desire for an enduring friendship. The Afghan government, parliament, traditional loya jirga, and political class overwhelmingly supported and endorsed the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement. Despite widely condemned corruption and other massive inefficiencies still plaguing the Afghan government, young Afghan leaders and especially a burgeoning educated class continue to be hopeful and active for reform. The current crisis calls for a healthy dose of strategic patience — we would do well to remember that South Korea did not even have its first democratic presidential election until 1988, some 35 years after the United States and coalition partners began post-conflict reconstruction alongside the South Koreans.

Recovery from this crisis, then, requires a shift from a focus on vanishing, to a focus on vision. This does not require infinite numbers of troops or dollars for indefinite periods of time. Money, after all, cannot buy trust; it can even harm the mission by promoting corruption. Success requires creativity, commitment, and a communications strategy that outlines a shared and believable vision for the future. The effects we need cannot be mass-produced via boilerplate campaigns — they must be personally championed by trustworthy messengers. The U.S. military needs to focus now on identifying and empowering linguistically and cross-culturally competent messengers — a surge of talent rather than "boots on the ground."

Insider attacks, like other tactics including suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, are employed and then exploited primarily for their psychological effect. The Taliban’s primary strategy for operations in Afghanistan is to separate Afghans and their international partners from each other — this is a basic tenet of insurgency. As a senior Taliban commander from Kunduz told Newsweek in August: "These [insider] attacks are perhaps our most effective tool to create a golden gap between the Americans and the Afghans." We should not oblige our enemy’s efforts.

To recover the initiative on the psychological battlefield, the United States must identify the enemy and respond with firm resolve. Begging Pakistan for cooperation or chasing terrorists for negotiations is perceived as appeasement; these actions embolden those who seek America’s defeat and Afghanistan’s subjugation, while undermining Afghans’ trust in U.S. capacity and resolve. Clear communication about a unified resolve against a clear enemy — not just the Taliban but the group’s sponsors across the border — would go a long way toward reassuring our Afghan partners.

ISAF’s counterstrategy must emphasize the development of strong, authentic relationships between Afghans and the coalition. Trust is attainable through a consistent demonstration of good intentions, a basic level of humility and respect, and a dogged refusal to be separated from the Afghan people and the ANSF.

A vital psychological issue to consider is the immense battle stress experienced by Afghan troops, and the associated number of green-on-green incidents. This year alone, 53 Afghans were killed and 22 wounded in altercations with fellow ANSF members, according to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Contributing factors may include widespread — though largely unacknowledged — post-traumatic stress disorder, poor living and working conditions, and accelerated recruitment and training programs that put weapons into the hands of minimally trained and poorly vetted troops.

Dealing with these Afghan-on-Afghan fratricidal trends requires a long-term approach, with ANSF professionalism and leadership development at its core, along with refined personnel recruitment, training, and benefits programs. In the short term, U.S. units partnered with Afghans should not only be aware of these stress-factors, but proactively works to mitigate them.

Another major psychological vulnerability and impediment to trust-building is the short-term mindset that pervades U.S. and coalition units. Officers and soldiers alike are often focused on one thing — getting home safe after relatively short tours of duty. The short-term mindset is reinforced by command climates that tend to be highly risk-averse and restrictive when it comes to interacting with the Afghan population, particularly at headquarters bases. This is not an argument for rash or unthinking risks. However, when the refrain becomes "safety" instead of "victory," the mission begins to decay. This syndrome has grown even worse as the entire mission begins to take on a winding-down feel, and American attitudes of "we’re leaving, this is your problem now" toward Afghan partners becomes more pervasive.

A paradigm shift is needed to confront these challenges. The United States must stop mindlessly cycling through conventional units and move toward deliberately identifying, preparing, and deploying small, dedicated teams. Those who have strong tactical skills but lack cultural acumen should stay home; the system should be adjusted to stop sending people to Afghanistan who don’t want to be there — a welcome approach to the war-weary American public.

In the meantime, we must provide currently deployed units with the practical tools to fight a psychological, as well as a physical, war. Those with proven success at building strong relationships and engendering trust should be called upon to train others, rather than fading back into their regular jobs back home. Troops on both sides should be prepared to face the damaging propaganda and psychological attacks of the enemy. We can still win — but we have to think differently.

In light of these psychological struggles, it is clear that cross-cultural sensitivity or "awareness" — as it is sometimes called — is not just a squishy side note to the armed struggle against the insurgency. Rather, it is the key that unlocks a thousand doors in the counterinsurgency environment.

Cultural transgressions are nothing new, and it is no secret that cross-cultural relations in a military context tend to be particularly challenging because of the high stakes, high stress, and lack of expertise in the area of cultural diplomacy. Yet the number of supposed Afghan partners acting out violently against their coalition trainers and colleagues is unprecedented: U.S. officials say up to 90 percent of these insider attacks are related to personal, social, and cultural grievances, rather than insurgent infiltration or ties to the Taliban.

An ISAF analytical study released in May 2011 identified what was already at that time a "rapidly growing systemic homicide threat." The report examined mutual perceptions of Afghan security forces and U.S. soldiers, discerning some of the deepest and most widespread grievances on both sides. Offenses cited from the Afghan side included operational concerns like night raids and civilian casualties, as well as cultural offenses such as urinating in public places, excessive and offensive swearing, arrogance, and disrespectful treatment of women, especially violations of female privacy during house searches. Isolated incidents such as Quran burnings or vulgar pictures of U.S. soldiers urinating on dead bodies were disturbing, but understood by most Afghans as the actions of ignorant or ill-bred individuals. It’s the persistent, systemic offenses that were most worrying.

These types of grievances were not uncommon before the current spate of green-on-blue attacks, but the trust corrosion catalyzed by the U.S. announcement of departure in 2014 exacerbated them. The U.S. troop surge further heightened tensions by inserting even larger numbers of soldiers alongside battle-stressed Afghan partners. Neither side was prepared to confront the psychological battlespace nor attuned to the seemingly disproportionate role cultural astuteness would factor into their operational effectiveness.

As the last surge troops withdraw and the international force transitions to a system of smaller partnered units, the time is ripe for rebooting how the Afghan war is fought. With 15 percent of coalition deaths this year resulting from green-on-blue fratricide, the issue should be treated as one of the deadliest vulnerabilities faced by U.S. and NATO soldiers today. Every soldier, Marine, airman, and sailor deploying to Afghanistan should receive the proper psychological and cultural equipment — and these skills should be considered as important as being able to shoot, clean, and field-strip a weapon. Pre-deployment cross-cultural preparation is more crucial than ever; it should focus on high-impact knowledge and skills (such as greeting in the Afghan style and the dynamics of guest-host relationships). Mobile training teams composed of both Afghans and U.S. personnel with engagement experience should be fielded immediately to work with units already in the field.

The United States and Afghans can still win — together — by forging deep relationships in the face of this crisis, restoring a shared vision that defeats the enemy’s plans to divide us, and creatively overcoming the challenge of navigating a complex cross-cultural environment. But some major adjustments are needed, and they are the imperative to salvage the mission. There is no time to lose.

Felisa "Farzana" Dyrud (@FarzanaMarie) is a former U.S. Air Force officer who worked in Afghanistan for three years (2003 to 2004 and 2010 to 2012).  She is studying for a Ph.D in Persian literature at the University of Arizona. 
Davood Moradian is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul and former senior policy advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006 to 2011).  He has taught international relations at the University of St. Andrews and the American University of Afghanistan.