Inside and Upside Down

Why the Pentagon's ad hoc plans to prevent green-on-blue attacks could backfire.


It’s officially an epidemic. Attacks from within the Afghan security forces have killed a record number of international troops this year. As of October 2012, a total of 55 fatalities were reported as a result of these "insider," or "green-on-blue" attacks — which now account for an astonishing 15 percent of all coalition casualties this year.

Not surprisingly, the insider threat has had a profoundly negative effect on the partnership between international and Afghan forces, just as the NATO-led coalition is preparing to end its mission. In September, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took Afghan partners and international allies by surprise when it announced the temporary suspension of joint patrols and operations. About a week later, cooperation resumed, but the effect of this move still reverberates both in Afghanistan and beyond. As outgoing ISAF commander, Gen. John Allen, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in a recent interview: "We’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we’re not willing to be murdered for it."

What has become clearer with the news of each successive attack is that insider violence is now having a strategic effect on the coalition’s plans for withdrawal. Nothing underscores the perceived futility of the NATO mission in Afghanistan than Afghan allies who kill scores of international troops. As such, they already have an impact on the transition, which may end up being fast-tracked if Washington or Kabul can’t figure out a way to stem the problem.

It is a problem that has most NATO members with a troop presence in Afghanistan considerably worried. Consequently, the issue has been addressed on the highest levels. At the NATO conference early this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sought to reassure his allies that steps were being taken to address the issue: "We can only deny the enemy its objective by countering these attacks with all of our strength." In mid-August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, flew in for talks with ISAF commander General Allen and his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi. Even U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to admit there was something rotten in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan when he addressed the issue at an August news conference, albeit in passing.

The string of insider attacks has left NATO scrambling to find effective countermeasures. But there’s no easy solution. The causes for these attacks are manifold, attributed to a potent mix of insurgent infiltration, resentment, radicalization, and combat stress. However, there is no clear explanation as to why this disturbing trend has surfaced with such vehemence. In 2011, coalition forces lost 31 service members in attacks committed by Afghan security personnel. In 2010, the year of the troop surge, insider attacks accounted for 21 coalition casualties. In a message to celebrate the end of this year’s Ramadan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar claimed the successful penetration of the Afghan security forces was part of a comprehensive plan to subvert the international strategy. The veracity of the message could not be confirmed, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also offered similar statements to that effect.

Some analysts say the green-on-blue attacks are a side effect of the externally induced growth of the Afghan security forces, which are being rapidly stood up as U.S. troops prepare to leave. In just three years, they have grown from 163,000 in March 2009 to 350,000 in March 2012. In order to muster this enormous amount of personnel, both the Afghan security forces and the coalition have had to lower their sights. Haphazard vetting and superficial background checks were a logical consequence. The coalition recently said it thought about 25 percent of all reported insider attacks were related to insurgent infiltration. But particular flashpoints may have also contributed to the spike in attacks. Incidents like the accidental burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Field in February or the Panjwayi massacre in Kandahar earlier this year have done much to antagonize significant parts of the population and by extension, members of the Afghan security forces.

Unfortunately, why the attacks have occurred is less important now than how to stop them. This summer, both the coalition and the Afghan forces have begun to implement several provisions designed to reduce the risk of insider attacks. Some measures are designed to provide protection to the troops on the ground; others are geared toward prevention.

One of the more prominent countermeasures is the employment of "guardian angels" essentially NATO troops assigned additional guard duty to watch out for fellow soldiers. Effectively babysitting with guns, this is the most visible provision in effect across the theater. Yet this approach isn’t without risk. While guardian angels might nip the odd attack in the bud, Afghan troops may perceive the presence of armed guards as an insult to their sense of partnership and hospitality. In turn, this could further aggravate potential antagonisms, perhaps even creating an additional risk. General Allen’s decision to upgrade weapon status to "amber" level, an order issued in August, simply adds spine to the guardian angel concept. Nationwide, ISAF service members will now have to carry loaded weapons around the clock while they are on base. The change in weapon security status across the theater is a clear sign that the problem of insider attacks isn’t limited to certain geographic areas or to specific military forces. But this tactic is limited to protection, not prevention.

Another interesting provision, which has received less coverage, is a new pocket guide for ISAF forces based on a classified handbook. Published by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in February, this four-page "smart card" aims to provide advice to deployed troops on how to deal with "Inside the Wire Threats." It picks up some of the findings of a now widely cited report, "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," compiled by military behavioral analyst Jeffrey Bodin, which suggested that cultural differences were one key reason behind the increase of insider attacks. Ultimately, the guide may help to raise awareness, but it’s unlikely it will play a more than a very limited role in the overall effort to combat the issue of insider attacks.

On the Afghan side, provisions to counter this problem have been made as well, albeit on a more haphazard basis. Frequently omitted is the fact that the Afghan security forces suffer from insider attacks — scores of Afghan troops have been wounded and killed by rogue colleagues, who often defect to the Taliban. There are no credible figures for green-on-green violence, but analysts believe that the number may be double that of attacks on international troops. And yet Afghans are in many ways much better predisposed to mount effective countermeasures to this threat: There is much less of a cultural divide, a lower language barrier, and a more intimate familiarity between the individuals within any security force or unit.

Consequently, enhanced intelligence and counterintelligence capacities are among the most prominent measures implemented by the Afghan security forces. Those measures include the deployment of undercover intelligence officers, surveillance of phone calls, and a ban on cell phone use among new recruits. Security personnel with ties to foreign countries have come under particular scrutiny. The Afghan Ministry of Defense has even gone so far as to order troops whose families live in Pakistan to either relocate them to Afghanistan or quit the force. (This policy, however, seems to have been implemented haphazardly and on a case-by-case basis.)

The recruitment and vetting process of the Afghan security forces has also moved into the spotlight. Too many recruits have entered the Afghan security forces without adequate background and security checks, which has opened the door to insurgent infiltration. Tribal elders or village dignitaries, who are required to vouch for the character of potential recruits, aren’t held accountable — a fact which isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Of particular concern here has been the creation of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), comprised largely of paramilitary groups that are mentored by U.S. Special Forces as part of the Village Stability Operations concept. Members of the ALP have frequently been accused of theft, murder, and other human rights violations. In September, U.S. Special Forces temporarily suspended the training of 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police to allow for the re-vetting of already existing members, of whom there are roughly 12,000.

On a wider basis, the Afghan National Security Council recently announced plans to enhance the screening process for recruits upon entry into the security forces. Those plans include the introduction of a more detailed questionnaire for recruits and additional background checks for recruits with family ties to Pakistan or Iran. The council also announced plans to develop a training program for the Afghan security forces to prevent cultural misunderstandings with international counterparts, which seem to have been the cause of some insider attacks.

But these stopgap measures aren’t likely to stem the increasing wave of green-on-blue violence. Clearly, a single, comprehensive package to prevent future insider attacks is lacking. While cooperation between Afghan and international actors exists from top to bottom, the extent, quality, and frequency of these measures varies greatly. A specific, overarching framework to coordinate the different steps and measures doesn’t yet exist and the Pentagon, while clearly concerned, has not announced any plans to synchronize their efforts with their erstwhile allies under such a framework. Clearly, better coordination between the international coalition and its Afghan partners is necessary. To this end, small, dedicated insider attack task forces or cells could be established at the joint operation and intelligence fusion centers that are active in most provinces and districts where coalition forces maintain a permanent presence. But even these measures won’t quickly stem the constant stream of attacks. 

Time, of course, is something neither the United States nor NATO has, as the 2014 deadline to end the combat mission approaches fast. With every insider attack, troop morale plummets further, despite reassurances to the contrary. The first cracks are starting to appear. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently hinted in an interview at the possibility of speeding up the timeline, though he backtracked on his comments a day later. Still, this episode hints at a certain nervousness at the highest levels.

The good news, if there is a glimmer in any of this, is that insider attacks are an issue where the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan security forces share a mutual interest, which cannot be said of many other issues at this stage of the long war. Here is an opportunity where both allies can benefit equally from mutual cooperation, reinforcing the much-needed trust that will allow for a successful hand-off of responsibility. But both sides need to realize that unilateral moves, such as imposing strict limitations on joint operations or the withdrawal of coalition advisers from Afghan ministries are counterproductive at best — and outright dangerous at worst.

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