The increase in “insider attacks” by Afghans against U.S. and coalition forces is complicating President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of this,” Obama said yesterday at a White House news conference, citing an “uptick” in attacks by Afghans working with coalition forces in the past year.
The administration’s strategy to pull out U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014 rests on transferring primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from 130,000 U.S.-led international troops to Afghan forces by the middle of next year. That has meant mass recruitment of Afghans for shoulder-to-shoulder training with coalition forces.
Killings by Afghans of coalition troops on patrols, during recreation time and in barracks has raised questions about vetting, training and sharing quarters when cooperation and trust are at a premium. The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan counts 40 insider killings so far this year, compared with 35 in all of 2011.
The attacks and new precautions aimed at preventing them “are creating distrust right at a time when the U.S. needs to work more closely with Afghans,” Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said in an interview. “Afghans may not be ready by the end of 2014. If that’s true, there may be a decision that the U.S. needs to keep more forces after 2014 than previously thought.”
The plane of U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was in Afghanistan yesterday to discuss the insider attacks, was fired upon by militants without hurting anyone.
Militants fired on the U.S. Bagram airbase, damaging the plane that had brought Dempsey, NATO said today in an e-mailed statement. Dempsey left Afghanistan on a different aircraft. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed claimed responsibility in a phone interview.
The rash of “green-on-blue” attacks, named for the colors of Afghan and allied uniforms, may make the war an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, as the decade-long American mission remains entangled in Afghan government corruption, ethnic divisions and debate in Washington over how to define success.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, yesterday that Obama has failed to regularly address the nation on “what the mission is, what its purpose is, how we’ll know when it’s completed.”
At the White House news conference yesterday, Obama said that, “In the long term, we will see fewer U.S. casualties and coalition casualties by sticking to our transition plan and making sure that we’ve got the most effective Afghan security force possible. But we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t leave our guys vulnerable.”
Attacks from inside the Afghan security forces against coalition troops jumped to 10 this month, up from four in July, and two in June, Lieutenant Colonel Hagen Messer, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, said in a phone interview from Kabul.
Insider attacks accounted for 13 percent of all coalition deaths in Afghanistan this year and 11 percent of U.S. military fatalities, based on numbers reported by the ISAF and icasualties.org, a website that tracks war deaths. The psychological impact shouldn’t be underestimated, said analyst David Cortright.
“These insider attacks are a dagger in the heart of the U.S. mission,” Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, said in a statement. “They strike at the core strategy of training Afghan forces to replace our troops. If we cannot trust the troops we are recruiting, how can the mission succeed?”
Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter today to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, requesting a “counterintelligence survey” of Afghan security forces to address the likelihood of “serious vetting problems” including Taliban penetration.
“I am reliably informed that reporting on counterintelligence problems in Afghan units advised and trained by U.S. forces has been suppressed, out of a misplaced fear of reflecting badly upon those units’ American advisers and trainers,” said King, a New York Republican. “Such concerns must now plainly come second to addressing a growing crisis for our mission in Afghanistan, posed by green-on-blue shootings.”
NATO’s decision in November 2010 to withdraw international combat troops by the end of 2014 has required a swift buildup of Afghan security forces.
Afghan National Security Forces grew to 344,108 personnel as of March, up from 284,952 a year earlier, according to U.S. Army Major Adam Wojack, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul. The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are both ahead of schedule to reach their projected combined force of 352,000 by October, he said.
ISAF and Afghan commanders have defended their screening procedures for new recruits. Some attacks have been by people who never were vetted by coalition forces, including a teenage tea server who was reportedly recommended by a local mullah to assist an Afghan police commander and had access to a base with U.S. forces, Katzman said.
Even with improved vetting, “it’s not always possible to read the minds of other people,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters yesterday.
Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has taken credit for the attacks, claiming that his militants have infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan forces.
The Pentagon disputed that yesterday. The “vast majority” of the 32 insider attacks this year were perpetrated by “disgruntled individuals” and not Taliban insurgents, Little said.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has advised a number of U.S. administrations, said it’s a meaningless distinction.
“Most of the young men in Afghanistan are caught up in a climate where inevitably they’re going to hear insurgent complaints about the U.S. presence, calls for jihad,” Cordesman said in a phone interview.
While insider attacks remain at a “relatively low level” for a guerrilla war, at 40 deaths out of 130,000 coalition troops, they garner press attention and shape public opinion, Cordesman said. “If all you have to do is create a green-on-blue incident, you achieve political impact out of any proportion,” he said.
The U.S. has taken new steps to guard against the attacks, including a greater “intelligence presence” in the field to gather information on potential threats, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an Aug. 14 Pentagon briefing.
The Pentagon also created a “guardian angel” program that designates one individual “who stands to the side so that he can watch people’s backs and hopefully identify people that would be involved in those attacks,” Panetta said.
Afghan security ministries have adopted more rigorous vetting procedures for Afghans seeking to join the security forces, Little said.
“Hopefully, over the next several weeks we’ll start seeing better progress on this front,” Obama said.
Said Jawad, a former longtime Afghan ambassador to Washington, said he believes the attacks are the result of Taliban infiltration and jihadist influence, and don’t reflect the views of ordinary Afghans.
“The most effective tactic by the Taliban is to create a rift between Afghan security forces and NATO forces,” he said.
Jawad, who has been mentioned as a possible next Afghan defense minister, said the rapid pace of expansion of the Afghan police and army means “there’s limited recruitment criteria,” making it easier for anti-American insurgents to “place their agents.”
‘Culture of Corruption’
Reaction against the insider attacks may create pressure on the administration to outline a more concrete transition plan, Cordesman said.
From the start of the U.S. involvement, President George W. Bush’s administration “set impossible goals. They flooded money in, creating a vast culture of corruption and privilege at the top, and almost none trickled down,” he said.
Since then, there’s been “constant turbulence in the military and constant turbulence in every other aspect -- aid, anti-corruption efforts, efforts to create rule of law,” Cordesman said. “What you haven’t had is any coherent progress or stability.”