The total number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) causalities caused this year by so called “insider” or “green on blue” attacks reached 52 this week. The most recent attack came after the Pentagon announced on Thursday that joint operations between ISAF and Afghan forces would resume as normal. These attacks have generated much alarm and discussion both in the media and in the defence community. As the 2014 withdrawal deadline approaches many are wondering if Afghanistan is ready.
Earlier this month NATO commanders suspended joint operations between Afghan and ISAF forces for units under brigade strength. This reaction, both to the uptick in insider attacks and to an anti-Islamic video published on the internet, was a ‘temporary and prudent response’ according to U.S. Colonel Tom Collins, a senior spokesperson for NATO. Despite this and other reassurances that the attacks would not hinder the training and preparation of Afghan forces, there was much concern that the suspension was a strategic misstep. Afzal Aman, the Afghan defence department’s head of operations said this on the matter, ‘It will have a negative impact on our operations. Right now, foreign forces help us in air support, carrying our personnel, wounded and dead out of the battlefields, in logistics and training4’ Lieutenant General James Dubik [ret.], who oversaw the training of security forces in Iraq, said, ‘As we saw in Iraq and as Afghanistan has seen in the last two years, the partnership program at the company, platoon level is key to the on-the-job training that is required, so that will be affected and it will be a declarant in terms of their proficiency’.
It is still unclear if the most recent attack which claimed the lives of three Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and one civilian contractor, in addition to the ISAF solider who brought the death toll for this year up to 52, will change plans to resume joint operations.
While any death of Afghan or NATO forces is tragic, it is dangerous to allow these deaths to stand out. Media coverage over the past weeks has frequently asked questions of trust between NATO and Afghan forces, something that on the whole is not lacking and can only be damaged by media suspicion. For the most part the cooperation strategy has worked. The ANA is the most advanced and unified military force Afghanistan has every known.
While the precise cause of the recent spike in these attacks is still unknown, it is possible to examine the likely causes. There have been no large-scale betrayals by Afghan forces, and in the case of some attacks it is clear that unstable individuals, who enlisted after only minor security checks, were pre-selected by Taliban operatives. This was the case in the attack that killed U.S. Sergeant Christopher Birdwell in August of this year. Here we can see two clear possible causes for these kinds of attacks, both of which have a silver lining. Welayat Khan, identified as Sgt. Birdwell’s killer and recruited by the Taliban to conduct an insider attack, was not properly vetted while applying to join the ANA.
Taliban efforts to infiltrate the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) to conduct these kinds of attacks can be seen as having a fairly clear motive. In addition to killing ISAF and ANA soldiers, they ferment suspicion between NATO forces and their Afghan allies; thus decreasing the effectiveness of join training operations and giving the Taliban a desperately needed advantage in 2014 when NATO forces are to withdraw. However, there is much more that this can tell us. The devotion of Taliban resources to this kind of operation may indicate that they view ANA/ISAF cooperation as a serious threat and are trying to limit it. It is generally seen as a good indicator of tactical success when your opponent sees your strategy as a threat. This by no means diminishes the loss of Sgt. Birdwell, or any of the 51 other ISAF soldiers this year, but it may just validate their purpose.
The issue of recruit vetting may seem minor in comparison to the battle with the Taliban, but it points to a different kind of issue that will be key part of Afghanistan’s path post 2014. As Afghan national institutions grow in both size and stability, they will with out fail encounter the same challenges that government institutions face the world over. The ANA, which numbers more than 200,000, is larger now than at any point in recent history. Recruits come from a variety of backgrounds seeking the good and steady pay that army life offers. Personnel records and documentation are uncommon in remote parts of the country and forgery is easy. In the case of Welayat Khan, he obtained a recommendation from a ANA officer on grounds of his ethnicity alone. While NATO has promised that background checks will become more sophisticated and thorough, it is unlikely that the ANA will ever reach a 100% success rate. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, suggested that the Taliban might be using these attacks because it was so easy to infiltrate the army, but as he reminded attendees at a event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ‘[…] our own vetting in the U.S. military is nor that great, let’s face it’. Dealing with infiltrators, and in some cases people who just shouldn’t be in the armed forces, is part of the development of any military and the Taliban may be opening a wound where there were already growing pains.
What can be taken away from all this, when Welayat Khan attacked, the other ANA soldiers in his unit, dropped their weapons to help IASF troops identify the attacker, an act of trust. The most recent attack killed more Afghans than foreigners hence showing that this is not just a NATO problem. This week during a press conference at the Pentagon Leon Panetta stated: ‘[…] the enemy will do whatever they can to try and break our will using this kind of tactic, That will not happen’.2 Eleven years is a long time to be at war, and although 2014 is fast approaching, we must remain committed to the mission, and as for the ISAF and the ANA alike, we owe them at least that much.