The Taliban has introduced a new and divisive tactic in Afghanistan that threatens the foundation upon which our cooperation and ultimate withdrawal depend.
Green-on-blue killings, in which Afghan Security Forces turn their weapons on their International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) allies, is the latest lethal innovation from an agile, cunning and ruthless enemy.
Not all of these attacks are ideological. Many have arisen from cultural conflict or personal insult. It is no secret, for example, that American troops are openly disdainful of the Afghan penchant for stopping whatever they are doing for tea or to pray. Afghans are incensed by the American habit of urinating in public, occasionally in full view of females.
Foreigners and Afghans have been murdered in Afghanistan for violations of cultural norms for centuries. The code of Pashtunwali requires any man who has lost face to kill the tormentor.
These incidents aside, the growing trend of green-on-blue murders is unmistakable and must be countered. In 2008 there were only two such attacks in all of Afghanistan. So far this year, there have been 31 attacks .
The latest attack occurred Sunday when an Afghan policeman turned his gun on NATO forces at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan, killing at least four troops. On Saturday, a man dressed in an Afghan military uniform shot and killed two British troops. The deaths brought to 51 the number of ISAF forces killed this year by fellow Afghan soldiers and policeman.
No troops have been spared; even the elite special forces have been struck. In April, for the first time, an Afghan commando killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier and an Afghan interpreter in Kandahar. Again in August, two Marine special operators were murdered by an Afghan police officer they were training.
Afghan sources say that all but one of these attacks were committed by Pashtuns. The sole green-on-blue attack committed by an ethnic Tajik occurred at Kabul Airport in April of last year when an Afghan pilot suffering from mental illness and drug addiction killed eight American soldiers and a NATO civilian contractor. A personal confrontation apparently preceded the slaughter.
The Taliban is predominantly Pashtun, and it is not surprising that a majority of the attacks has occurred in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the heart of the Pashtun homeland.
The Taliban's ability to infiltrate throughout the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Army (ANA) may have been facilitated by efforts to "homogenize" those forces in 2007 and 2008. Initially, many units in both forces were organized along regional or ethnic lines. Existing regional and ethnic divides were thus institutionalized - hardly a way to create national unity and lessen tensions among groups that have been at war for three decades .
The new plan was to create units that were roughly proportional to the ethnic makeup of the country: Pashtun at 42 percent, Tajik at 27 percent, Hazara and Uzbek at 9 percent each, Turkmen at 3 percent, and several smaller groups, including nomads, making up the remaining 10 percent.
It is believed that it was at this time that the Taliban were able to insert sleeper agents into every major ANA and ANP unit throughout the country. These agents are now being awakened and given missions designed to demoralize ISAF forces and drive a wedge of mistrust between trainer and trainee.
Another explanation for the new tactic may be Taliban public relations. If they hope to legitimately enter the Afghan body politic, Taliban leaders realize they must stop indiscriminately killing their fellow Muslims with IEDs. For some time, the Quetta Shura (the Taliban governing body headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan) has been debating this issue. The killing of fellow Muslims without cause is at variance with Quranic teachings and was also a major point of contention within Al-Qaida’s senior leadership. So a switch to the targeted killing of Americans and other ISAF personnel makes good political sense. Mullah Omar was quick to claim credit for infiltrating “the ranks of the enemy.”
The significance of green-on-blue killings has not been lost on the United States leadership. Following a spate of these attacks in August, during which 10 American soldiers died, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, flew to Kabul to meet with senior Afghan military leaders to discuss this new and alarming trend.
Shortly before Dempsey’s visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Afghan President Karzai, during which the green-on-blue issue was discussed. In addition, Gen. John Allen, the Commander of all ISAF troops in Afghanistan, detailed a set of measures that NATO and Afghan authorities would be taking to stop the growing use of “insider attacks.”
Even President Barack Obama, notwithstanding his rigorous campaign schedule, found time to “reach out” to Karzai over this new menace.
The most decisive action was taken by Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, commanding the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF), who ordered the stand-down of all training of 27,000 Afghans until each could be re-vetted. Following the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a new skill was added to the officer evaluation form (OER): force protection. Each officer is rated by a superior on how well he or she adheres to the principles of force protection.
In addition to the trauma of losing one of your soldiers is now added the anxiety that a later investigation may find that you, as the commander, had not faithfully adhered to all force protection principles and guidelines. Accordingly, force protection has seeped into the subconscious of every officer and NCO. US troops are now being admonished not to shower or exercise alone. Weapons are locked and loaded and close at hand, if not in hand.
Not surprisingly, physical separation and the atmosphere of caution and suspicion inhibit the ability of ISAF soldiers to gain the trust and respect necessary to establish a cohesive and effective fighting force. The new tactic of green-on-blue killings also reduces significantly the level to which we can train the Afghans before they have to go it on their own against a ruthless and innovative foe.
The new tactic makes our joint goals more difficult to reach. We have conducted 11 years of hard fighting in Afghanistan during which we have lost more than 2,100 Americans and sent home more than 15,000 wounded, many gravely. Each of these great Americans volunteered for service knowing for certain that he or she would definitely serve in a war zone. To these selfless men and women and the many thousands who love them, there is no adequate recompense.
Now our soldiers face a new threat that comes from those with whom they are living and working.