By Ajit Kumar Singh
On September 16, 2012, four US troopers were killed by an Afghan Policeman at a remote checkpoint in the Mizan District of Zabul Province. A day earlier, an Afghan Policeman killed two UK soldiers in Helmand Province. In both incidents, the attackers were killed in return of fire. In the latest such attack, on September 17, an Afghan soldier opened fire on an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) vehicle in Helmand, injuring at least one US soldier. The attacker was captured immediately thereafter. A total of 112,579 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led ISAF personnel from 50 countries are currently deployed across Afghanistan.
According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, at least 116 ISAF personnel have been killed in 69 “Green on Blue” or “insider attack” incidents since January 1, 2009 (all data till September 21, 2012). More worryingly, there has been a steep rise in such incidents over the recent past. There were just six “Green on Blue” incidents, and 10 ISAF fatalities, in 2009. In 2010, six incidents occurred, with 20 fatalities. In 2011, the number rose to 21 incidents and 35 ISAF deaths. 2012 has already recorded 36 such incidents and 51 ISAF fatalities. 31 attackers have also been killed in these attacks since 2009.
Of 67 “Green on Blue” attacks recorded, 15 were major (resulting in three or more fatalities). The most prominent among these included:
September 16, 2012: An Afghan Policeman opened fire in the Mizan District of Zabul Province, killing four US soldiers. The attacker was killed in return fire. The Taliban later claimed that the attack had been carried out with the aid of seven Afghan Policemen who were retaliating against the film “Innocence of Muslims.”
August 28, 2012: An Afghan soldier shot and killed three Australian soldiers in an attack at a base in the Baluchi Valley of Uruzgan Province. Two more Australian soldiers were wounded in the attack. On September 16, the Taliban put up a picture of the attacker, Sergeant Hikmatullah, a recent recruit, on Twitter. Hikmatullah is yet to be captured.
August 10, 2012: Three US soldiers were killed in an attack by an Afghan Policeman in Sangin District in Helmand Province. The attacker fled after the attack.
January 20, 2012: An Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers and wounded another 15 at their base in Kapisa Province. One of the injured soldiers died later. The attacker was apprehended.
April 27, 2011: An Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire inside a NATO military base in Kabul, killing eight NATO troops and a contractor. The shooter jumped out of a window after the attack, injuring his leg, and was captured.
April 16, 2011: An Afghan soldier blew himself up at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in Laghman Province, killing five NATO troops and four Afghan soldiers. Another eight Afghans were wounded, including four interpreters.
November 29, 2010: An Afghan Border Police trooper killed six ISAF soldiers during a training mission in Pachir Agam District of Nangarhar Province. The attacker was killed in the incident.
November 4, 2009: An Afghan Policeman named Gulbuddin shot and killed three UK Grenadier Guards and two members of the UK Royal Military Police at a checkpoint in the Nad-e-Ali District of Helmand Province. The attacker escaped on a motorcycle.
The term “Green on Blue” originated from NATO symbolism which uses blue to identify ‘friendly’ forces, red for ‘enemy’ and green for ‘neutral’ forces. Such attacks are not limited to killing foreigners alone. At least 53 Afghan National Security Force [ANSF, comprising the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan Local Police (ALP), Afghan Border Police (ABP), Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP), Afghan Air Force (AAF), etc.] personnel have been killed in 35 separate attacks in 2012 [these attacks are distinct from the 35 “Green on Blue” attacks in 2012 above]
Analysts and authorities have put forward various grounds for the increasing trend in “Green on Blue” attacks, including personal enmity, cultural differences, violent society, an increasing distrust towards ISAF, the segregation at military bases, stress levels within the ANSF, and the self-radicalization of a section within ANSF, among others. Talking of personal enmity and cultural difference, Major Hasanzada of the ANA argued, “I understand why our men are shooting US and NATO soldiers. I too have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave towards my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture. Too many of them are racist, arrogant, and simply don’t respect us.” Alarmed by the role of cultural differences in such attacks, the Afghan Defense Ministry, in a Pamphlet, noted, “Even minor cultural differences can create misunderstandings and rows… Coalition troops may ask about the women in your family. Do not take offence; they just want friendly relations with you…. If you or your coalition partner gets angry, stay away from each other until the situation becomes normal…” Indeed, the new strategy of “mentoring” which was replaced by “partnering” after the 2009 surge of US troops in 2009, increased the mixing of ISAF and ANSF personnel, 24 hours a day, escalating cultural clashes.
These various factors would certainly play a role in the increasing violence between Afghan and foreign Forces, as well as within the ANSF. Nevertheless, the most prominent factor is likely the direct role of the Taliban, who see “Green on Blue” attacks as an integral element of their strategy of dominance in the wake of the US drawdown.
Significantly, the “Green on Blue” attacks spiked after US President Barack Obama announced, on June 22, 2011, that as many as 33,000 US ‘surge forces’ would be withdrawn, at the latest, by September 2012. He also promised to end US involvement in combat operations by 2014, and to shift the burden of Afghan security to the ANSF. On September 21, 2012, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the last of the 33,000 ‘surge forces’ had withdrawn from Afghanistan, returning the US presence to the pre-surge level of 68,000 troops.
To offset the decline in foreign troops, there was surge in recruitment into ANSF, with 10,000 to 15,000 new recruits being brought into the Afghan Forces each month, in order to reach the target strength of 352,000 by October 2012. This has led to poor screening processes and the entry of a large number of Taliban-backed rogue elements, who hope to capture control of the Force in the aftermath of the ISAF withdrawal. President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi thus noted, “The speedy process was the result of the need that we had to build up our security forces to the number that was required. But now we are close to that number so, in a way, we are not in a hurry… The insider attacks are a reason to also bring down this number (of new recruits being vetted each month) – to take more measures and be more careful in recruiting individuals.”
Mullah Omar, the leader of Taliban, in a statement released on August 16, 2012, has openly acknowledged the strategy of infiltration:
Mujahedeen have cleverly infiltrated in the ranks of the enemy according to the plan given to them last year . Many conscious Afghans in the rank and files of the enemy have shown willingness to help the Mujahedeen in a shrewd and astute manner after having come around to know the reality. Thanks to the infiltration of the Mujahedeen, they are able to (safely) enter bases, offices and intelligence centers of the enemy. They easily carry out decisive and coordinated attacks, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy both in life and equipment… It is more proper for you (sympathetic Afghans) to take advantage of this opportunity because the day is not far away that the invading enemy will flee Afghanistan.
He also said that the Taliban had opened a “Call and Guidance, Luring and Integration” department, “with branches … now operational all over the country,” to encourage defections in the ANSF.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi, on September 5, 2012, noted, “Hundreds [of ANSF personnel] were sacked or detained after showing links with insurgents. In some cases we had evidence against them; in others we were simply suspicious.” The investigation, he added, was the result of the probe ordered by President Karzai at the start of 2012, following the spike in insider attacks in 2011.
Initially, the US downplayed the attacks as “sporadic incidents’, but there is now evident concern at the highest level. President Obama, on August 20, 2012, stressed, “We are deeply concerned about this, from top to bottom”, and citing reason for the spike said, “We are transitioning to Afghan security, and for us to train them effectively we are in much closer contact – our troops are in much closer contact with Afghan troops on an ongoing basis.” Similarly, US Army General Martin Dempsey stated, on September 16, 2012, “We’re all seized with (the) problem. You can’t whitewash it. We have to get on top of this. It is a very serious threat to the campaign. Something has to change.”
Crucially, on August 22, 2012, President Hamid Karzai’s office, without directly naming Pakistan, asserted that foreign spy agencies were behind most of these attacks. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, observed, “Based on interrogations of attackers who had been detained, and other evidence like letters and records of phone calls, the Government had concluded that the main culprits in the killings had been put in place by intelligence services from neighboring countries. There is no doubt there is infiltration.”
Meanwhile, a number of corrective measures have been introduced or are under consideration, including the designation of ‘Guardian Angels’, improving vetting processes for new recruits, introducing barriers between NATO and the ANSF, suspending training of ANSF, introducing interview procedures for ANSF personnel returning from leave, improving training for counter-intelligence agents, establishing an anonymous reporting system, and establishing a joint investigation commission when insider threats occur. Some of these measures are already being assessed as ‘not feasible’ and even ‘counter-productive’.
The designation of “Guardian Angels” – a trooper who will keep his weapon locked and loaded at all times, ready to protect his comrades, during training of ANSF troopers, is expected to increase the sense of security among foreign personnel. However, improving the vetting process has been declared unfeasible. “We realistically don’t have the time to study the case of each applicant. We look them over, have short interviews, and make background checks. But who knows what is really in the young man’s heart and soul?” argues an unnamed Afghan Army Colonel. Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted, “There are no vetting procedures that can eliminate green-blue attacks in a country where there are no real records. Vetting relies heavily on tribal and local sources, who care more about family and local politics, and where interviews and polygraphs present major language problems.”
More worryingly, introducing barriers between NATO forces and the ANSF recruits they are training, is thought to be suicidal. John R. Allen, ISAF commander in Afghanistan, noted, “At this particular moment I don’t believe that we need to contemplate reducing our contact with the Afghans. The closer the relationship with them—indeed, the more we can foster a relationship of brotherhood — the more secure we are.”
On September 2, 2012, the ISAF announced that its Special Forces had suspended training for ANSF, in order to recheck the vetting status of ANSF troops. However, the most desperate measure was taken on September 19, 2012, when the ISAF announced that joint patrols and advisory work with ANSF would henceforth only be conducted at the battalion level and above, while co-operation with units smaller than the 800-strong battalions would be “evaluated on a case-by-case basis” and approved by ISAF’s Regional Commanders. Soon after, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed claimed, “This is the result of the mujahedeen’s operations and tactics that forced the enemy to abandon their plans. This is an achievement for the mujahedeen who have managed to create mistrust among the enemy forces and, God willing, this is the start of their overall defeat in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban, of course, is celebrating the discomfiture of their enemies. An unnamed senior Taliban commander in Kunduz Province observed:
These [insider] attacks are perhaps our most effective tool to create a golden gap between the Americans and the Afghans. We are aware that the Afghan security forces are getting stronger, so this is best way for us to weaken and divide them from the Americans. We are working like termites, eating into this already rotten wooden structure.
Afghanistan clearly stands at a crossroads, and the future is deeply uncertain. The worst-case scenario would see the ANSF simply peter out in the face of a hostile Taliban takeover after the US ‘withdrawal’ in 2014, with some troops defecting in strength to the Taliban, while others prefer to ‘melt away’ into villages and towns to avoid a confrontation. Such a situation would make the presence of the residual ISAF troops untenable, with a stronger and bolder Taliban, backed by ISAF-trained ex-ANSF troopers, targeting them. It is projected that the US envisages a residual Force of Advisors, Technical Support personnel and Special Forces at a strength of 25,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, at least up to 2024.
Under all circumstances, the crisis has deepened. The ‘surge’ that was aimed at beating back the Taliban to give the Afghan Government and its Security Forces the time and space to secure a firm grip on the affairs of the country, has ended without achieving its objectives. Though there has been a sharp decline in militancy related fatalities, at 3,952 in 2012, (till September 21) as compared to a total of 8,942 in 2011, the geographical spread of the Taliban influence has widened, even as their strikes become more audacious. On September 14, 2012, for instance, 15 Taliban militants, dressed in US Army uniforms, attacked Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, killing two US Marines and injuring another nine. Though all but one of the insurgents were killed in retaliatory gunfire, while one was captured, the attackers, destroyed six AV-8B Harrier fighter jets, worth about USD 30 million each, and damaged another two. They also damaged six hangars and destroyed three refueling stations. This was termed the biggest single loss in terms of military equipment for the ISAF since the beginning of the conflict.
President Obama’s premature and ill-conceived announcement of the withdrawal schedule, essentially provoked by domestic electoral considerations rather than any strategic calculus, has had natural and predictable consequences. Afghanistan’s enemies have been quick to take advantage, and despite declining fatalities and dramatic losses inflicted on the Taliban, the uncertainties of the situation have increased exponentially, dramatically eroding the limited gains of over a decade of war.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management