BACKGROUND: Green-on-blue attacks refer to rogue Afghan security personnel turning their weapons on the ISAF troops. Also called insider attacks, the incidents are rarely reported as the multinational troops have adopted a policy of non-disclosure. According to conservative figures, over 50 ISAF troops have died in such attacks since 2012. The ISAF figures exclude attacks on contractors, hired for various types of missions in Afghanistan.
Three days after Germany renamed its mission training instead of combat, the soldier that would inflict the heaviest loss to the multinational as well as Afghan security forces turned rogue at a military academy in Qarga in the outskirts of Kabul. In a related event on August 6, an Afghan police officer poisoned his colleagues in southern Uruzgan province, 370 kilometers south of Kabul, killing seven. Leaving aside casualties among its foreign contractors and fellow Afghans employed in the security services, ISAF has lost over 2,100 troops so far. Prior to the death of Major General Harold Greene, insurgents had managed to hit a C-17 jet carrying General Martin Dempsey with rockets fired from the outskirts of Bagram base on August 21, 2012. Such a daredevil attack could not have been possible without information leaked from within the Afghan military personnel.
After over a decade of operations and training funded by the ISAF member states, the trust deficit has only increased in Afghanistan. In March 2012, Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales killed 16 Afghans, mostly women and children, shooting from a close range with his official automatic weapon.
Night raids and “collateral damage” inflicted by drone attacks are also only fanning the hate. In 2012 alone, reported incidents of green-on-blue attacks claimed the lives of 44 U.S. forces, the highest number recorded since October 2001. However, this year has seen some of the top ISAF personnel injured or killed in insider attacks.
Though the perpetrators of such attacks have rarely been proven to be Taliban operatives, affiliates or sympathizers, the foreign security conglomerate has always given greater credence to the ownership claims of the elusive Taliban chief Mullah Omar. As a result, not only have certain training programs been dropped or cancelled but intense screening regimes have also been imposed on the Afghan security forces.
However, Afghan security experts believe that the hasty recruitment of troops to double the army’s size in 2009 is also partially to blame. Lacking sufficient numbers of interested candidates, the campaign focusing on young and jobless citizens was conducted in popular city squares in the country, without due screening process. Even some NATO officials privately admit that infiltration stood a great chance and the Taliban benefited from the “low hanging fruit.”
IMPLICATIONS: Security and political analysts agree that ISAF troops’ night raids and drone attacks have created more trouble than benefits for the much-desired de-radicalization and peace-building processes. U.S.-led troops invading the homes of suspects at night has been perceived as a lack of respect for Afghan sensitivities regarding privacy and family pride.
The Christian Science Monitor reported in September 2011 that sometimes the number of daily night raids soared to 40 across the war-torn country, affecting some 14,600 families in terms of displacement, harassment or loss of family members from arrests or deaths. ISAF itself admitted to having killed more than 1,500 Afghan civilians from 2010 to 2011. This has led to widespread criticism, including from U.S. allies and former President Hamid Karzai.
The consequence of these recruitment policies and security strategies have not been contained to the battlefield and the Pentagon but U.S. taxpayers have paid a bill of over US$ 20 billion, spent on training 350,000 Afghan nationals employed in the armed forces as well as other security agencies.
Pakistan’s full-scale operation in volatile Waziristan also has implications for the ISAF troops as well as the newly installed administration in Kabul. According to Pakistani authorities, over 10,000 militants took advantage of the sparse security across the Durand Line, offering a major boost for Mullah Omar’s exhausted militia. Though Afghanistan has continued to accuse Pakistan of cross-border artillery shelling, the ISAF command has so far backed Pakistan in its much-delayed military campaign. Besides the Haqqani group leadership, Mullah Fazlullah who heads one of the three factions of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is also taking refuge in eastern Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s army is setting up a cantonment and a political package for the integration of semi-autonomous tribal areas, the militants will find it safer to camp in eastern and southern Afghanistan while carrying out hit-and-run operations against Pakistani and Afghan or U.S. troops.
The fundamental question today remains how much of an impact the reduction of the U.S. military footprint would have for Afghanistan’s security situation. The September attack near the U.S. embassy suggests the contrary. The Taliban’s ability to penetrate deep inside Kabul’s exclusive district shed some light on the bleak scenarios likely to emerge after NATO troops leave the country. The number of U.S. troops remaining post-2014 will only be sufficient to conduct strategic operations, rather than counter-terror campaigns.
The emerging security landscape depends largely but not entirely on the number and equipment of Afghan security forces but also their professionalism and commitment to stay neutral in an atmosphere charged with ethnic and sectarian hatred. The National Unity Government in Kabul has tough tests ahead with no time spared for a political honeymoon.
For Washington too, it is time to take a more pragmatic view of Afghan realities. The ISAF troops may leave the country soon but the U.S. military will continue to “advise” the Afghans on counter-terror operations. The local security forces will have limited time and means to confirm through ground intelligence what U.S. satellite imagery says about a suspect location. The national forces will have to make the Afghans feel that the actual handover of security affairs has been shifted to their compatriots.
The trend of green-on-blue attacks may worsen with the thinning out of ISAF troops, leaving behind the Americans as the most visible targets. The loss of a two-star general recently after dozens of fallen troops in such attacks put a greater strain on the nerves of Pentagon strategists.
CONCLUSIONS: If any conclusions can be drawn from the emergence of the Islamic State after years of sectarian violence in Iraq, Washington must learn to give greater space to domestic political elements, empower the local military command to make optimal use of sophisticated equipment available to them and restrain itself to a responsible advisory role. Throughout the Karzai decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. has micromanaged the vital issues while the politicians have acted apathetically. In view of political realities, the National Unity Government must act with greater pragmatism. Alongside the steadily rising Taliban outreach, rogue elements in the Afghan army can pose a threat similar to that emerging in Iraq. To keep matters manageable, Kabul needs to send more positive signals to Islamabad while communicating its concerns through diplomatic channels instead of public statements. While the Obama administration adopts a low profile, the Afghan government must fill the void by taking bold decisions and discrediting the Taliban allegation that they are puppet rulers.
(Image Attribution: US Army)