Afghanistan’s “Green on Blue” Nightmare

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Afghanistan’s “Green on Blue” Nightmare

Attacks on coalition troops by members of Afghan security forces endanger partnering programs and point to grave cultural misunderstandings.

With just over two years to go before the completion of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, insider attacks on U.S. and coalition troops have risen to an all-time high. So far in 2012, 37 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and police have left 53 troops dead in so-called “green on blue” incidents- those where coalition forces are attacked by a member of the Afghan security forces- including two this weekend. The pace of green-on-blue attacks has accelerated sharply: between 2007 and 2009, just 14 coalition troops fell victim to insider attacks, but since 2010, according to a tally by The Guardian, 106 coalition troops were killed in 63 attacks.

Another study, this one by the New America Foundation, identified 116 killed and 88 wounded in green-on-blue attacks since 2003. Meanwhile, Reuters estimates that insider attacks account for 20% of all combat related deaths that coalition forces have suffered in 2012.

The rising pattern of green-on-blue incidents has set off alarm bells from Kabul to Washington and London. By mid-summer the attacks had already reached epidemic proportions, when a string of attacks left 10 U.S. troops dead in a two-week span, after which the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, traveled to Kabul to meet with senior commanders and Afghan officials to discuss what was emerging as a crisis.

By August, a series of emergency steps had been implemented to reduce or eliminate insider attacks, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Among them, stricter vetting of Afghan recruits, beefed-up counterintelligence teams, mandatory interviews for Afghan soldiers returning from leave, a new “warning and reporting system for insider threats,” including a process for anonymous tips, and more. Still, in early September, U.S. Special Operations forces suspended training the particularly troublesome Afghan Local Police (ALP) after the August 17 shooting death of two American special ops troops by ALP members.

Anthony Cordesman, the veteran CSIS military analyst, said in the report that “green on blue and other politically oriented strikes on both foreign and Afghan targets may be giving the insurgents back the overall momentum in the war.” That is true, he pointed out, even though it isn’t clear how many insider attacks are Taliban-inspired, and how many result from personal grudges and grievances or generalized anger against the U.S./ISAF coalition on the part of Afghan forces.

Then, over the weekend of September 15-16, six more coalition troops were killed in two insider attacks. That spike caused the U.S./ISAF command in Afghanistan to suspend indefinitely so-called “mentoring” operations with Afghan security forces. While the Pentagon officials have confirmed that partner joint operations have already returned to their normal levels, the incident called into question the viability of the U.S. strategy to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by the end of 2013. The topic seems to have figured prominently in a video conference between President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai last week.

The resumption of partnering operations was probably a wise decision, given that one consequence of a cutback in partnership and mentoring operations with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) might have been a rise in the number of civilians killed in U.S./ISAF operations, including airstrikes, escalation-of-force incidents, and night raids. Some analysts have claimed that the decline in the number of civilian casualties Afghan and coalition forces have caused in recent years is due, at least in part, to the greater number of Afghans in the operations. These Afghan forces, some say, give American and other coalition forces a better understanding of local, cultural behavior and what the military calls “patterns of life.”

This idea was laid out explicitly in an unreleased study called “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Afghanistan and Beyond,” written by a team of analysts for CENTCOM, a copy of which was obtained by this author. The study, which is marked UNCLASSIFIED/FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY, notes that, “Afghan forces were said to have an increased awareness of cultural cues that help them discriminate between who belonged in local areas and outsiders who may be more likely to be a threat. Additionally, partnered forces were able to better communicate directly with locals without using an interpreter.” It adds: “ANSF were seen as better able to understand the behavior of locals when they act in ways that Coalition forces find inexplicable.”

Tension between U.S. and Afghan forces has been on the rise for some time now. And just as U.S. forces often misperceive Afghan traditions and culture, members of the ANSF equally harbor misunderstandings about American culture. A brochure issued to ANSF members, cited by the New York Times, sought to explain Western and American behaviors to Afghans, including that coalition forces might interrupt people praying or show the soles of their shoes to Afghans, not realizing how their Afghan partners interpret these gestures. For example, the brochure said, “As you know, Afghans in the presence of others do not blow their noses. This practice is very common in the culture of coalition countries. If a member of the coalition forces blows his nose in your presence, please don’t consider this an offense or an insult.”

Another reason that the resumption of partnering operations makes sense is that an extended suspension could have vastly complicated what is already going to be a tricky transition to 2014. The Afghan National Army (ANA), which was already increasing its numbers rapidly, grew nearly one-fourth, to 340,000, in the year ending June, 2012. Enormous questions still surround the issue of how such a large force will be sustained financially by a government in Kabul that can’t afford to pay for it. Interservice rivalry between the ANA, the ALP, the Afghan National Police (ANP) and its various branches, the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), and other units has also yet to be sorted out. And, of course, in broad areas of the country, local militias compete with – and sometimes cooperate with – the Taliban and other insurgent forces.

All of this was brought into sharp relief when, in various parts of Afghanistan, protests erupted over the airing of the satirical film about the Prophet Mohammad. While the events did not rise to the level of violence seen in Benghazi, Libya or Pakistan, the simmering anger left over from the incident – combined with efforts by opportunistic, Taliban-affiliated militants to take advantage of the issue – could easily spark yet another wave of green-on-blue attacks.