Editorial Board

‘Green-on-Blue’ Attacks Show Need for Smaller Afghan Army

The surprising thing about the “insider attacks” by Afghans against U.S. and coalition forces is not their sudden increase. It’s that the coalition’s military leadership didn’t anticipate the surge in the first place.

That blind spot points to the larger need to retool the U.S. strategy for building up Afghan forces so they can take over their nation’s security by 2014.

So far this year, 32 “green-on-blue” attacks (the phrase comes from the colors that the U.S. military assigns in exercises to “host nation” and “friendly” forces) have killed 40 members of coalition forces and wounded 69, versus 16 attacks that resulted in 28 dead and 43 wounded during the same period in 2011.

The Taliban have been quick to claim credit. And on Wednesday, Aimal Faizi, spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, foreign spy agencies for the attacks. The truth is more complicated. A recent Pentagon analysis suggests that only about 11 percent of the attacks are the result of Taliban infiltration. The majority had other causes, particularly disputes or grudges between coalition and Afghan forces.

Addressing them is tricky, not least because of the range of triggers for such animosities. Among the causes identified by a 2011 Pentagon study involving interviews with hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police officers was anger over everything from U.S. convoy procedures, night raids and civilian casualties to widespread cursing and shooting of livestock. Even something as elemental as how to urinate while on patrol was a cultural flashpoint. U.S. personnel, the same study found, had “extremely negative” views of their Afghan counterparts.

The rapid buildup of Afghan security forces and the growing interaction between forces as Afghans take on more responsibility have only amplified those tensions. (As one Afghan general commented to the report’s author, “Why didn’t the U.S. Army do this study eight years ago?”) Since the beginning of 2011, more than 70,000 personnel have joined the Afghan security forces -- that would be a challenge for any developed country to absorb, much less for one of the poorest countries in the world.

Given the potential for mayhem, we welcome Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s that the Pentagon will strengthen its vetting and threat detection procedures. Americans must also recognize that many Afghans view the coalition as an occupying force, which will set off hatreds and resentments when Korans are mistakenly burned, innocent civilians are killed, and crops and livelihoods inadvertently destroyed.

The U.S. has to take more sensible measures to improve cultural sensitivity. No, we’ll never get soldiers to stop swearing, but increasing the number of Muslim U.S. trainers and interpreters and stepping up pre-deployment cultural training make sense.

More fundamentally, President Barack Obama’s administration needs to its goals in standing up an Afghan force of 352,000 military and police personnel. From 2002 through fiscal year 2013, the U.S. has obligated about $60 billion to creating and training Afghan security forces. Yet in April 2012, the Department of Defense reported that only about 7 percent of the army and 9 percent of the police could operate independently, “with advisers.” (That caveat was added after last year’s rating, in which no unit was deemed capable of being “independent.”)

As we have argued before, creating a hollow force serves nobody’s interests -- especially when that force seems fiscally unsustainable. In May, the international community pledged to provide Afghanistan with $4.1 billion annually through 2017 to support its security forces -- half what the Pentagon estimated in May 2011 would be necessary. Afghanistan can barely afford to pay a few hundred million of that amount on its own, especially given its other governance and development challenges.

Why not focus now on creating a smaller, more effective force that will better stand the test of time? Afghanistan’s outgoing defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, has suggested a more practical 230,000 force.

The recent killings of coalition trainers are not just an ugly tragedy, but also a warning of where unrealistic goals may take us.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.

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