This weekend brought the sad news that two American and one British civilian advisors were killed by an Afghan policeman, one of the men they were training to take over security in the country.
This is far from an isolated incident. It seems that we’re hearing a similar story every few weeks, and indeed, the Associated Press tally is 35 coalition service members killed last year in 21 attacks by uniformed Afghans. According to the AP, that’s up from 11 attacks leading to 20 deaths in 2010 and only four such attacks in all of 2007 and 2008.
But those numbers, while startling, shouldn’t be taken in a vacuum. We shouldn’t draw a trend line and assume that so called “blue on green” attacks will continue exploding at such an alarming rate, but it is likely that the number of similar incidents will rise. In 2007 and 2008, there were far fewer coalition forces in the country; 2009 brought the surge of troops into southern and eastern Afghanistan where NATO troops partnered closely with Afghan Army and police units. Now that the surge is on its way out, the training and mentoring mission is front and center, part of the exit strategy that will bring all combat troops home by 2014.
That means that over the next two and a half years or so, more NATO troops and civilian advisors will be living with and mentoring Afghan units, a job that requires a great deal of trust. In early 2008, as I prepared to ship out on my second Iraq tour, during which I would lead a MITT team (Mobile Iraqi Training Team) an Iraqi soldier shot and killed a captain from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which, like me, was based at Fort Hood, Texas. Some of my friends knew that captain well, so we heard about the incident quickly.
Less than a month later, I landed on the ground in West Rashid, Baghdad and met the unit I would live, train and fight with for the next seven months. After the captain had been killed, we kept our sidearms on amber (magazine in the weapon, but a round not chambered). But as hard as it was at first to work and live with Iraqi troops of whom we were deeply suspicious, as I got to know the troops well, I let my guard down. We became close, and when I returned to Baghdad as a reporter in 2009, I was able to track a couple of them down.
In my experience as an embedded advisor, I was extremely lucky. In late 2008, my good friend Wes Morgan was on assignment for the New York Times in Mosul when an Iraqi solder opened fire on an American platoon while on a joint mission. The attack was devastating–on a micro level, beyond the killed and wounded, the incident destroyed the platoon’s mission to train and mentor the Iraqi soldiers. On a macro level, as word spread throughout an American military that’s not as big as it seems, it seeded deeply held suspicious of supposed allies.
When I traveled to Afghanistan for TIME in early 2010, I visited an outpost where an American platoon lived and fought alongside a platoon of Afghan soldiers. The tiny outpost where they lived was about the size of a soccer field, and the troops slept in a few makeshift tents crammed right next to each other. There were no walls between the Americans and Afghans; they ate, slept, cleaned their weapons, planned their missions and patrolled the area together. I remember thinking that such an arrangement required incredible trust, and I hoped that there wouldn’t be any incidents like the one Wes witnessed in Mosul. There weren’t.
But clearly Afghan troops have turned on their allies in other areas, and as coalition units pull out, the trend could very well get worse. From here on, more NATO troops will be partnered with Afghans specifically to train, mentor and fight alongside them. That means living on tiny outposts side by side. That is why the troops who will undertake the missions of the next couple of years deserve incredible praise. The vast majority of the time, their allies will fight bravely alongside them, just as the Afghans have done frequently throughout the war. But it only takes a single incident to deflect attention to the enemies within, which they will have to watch for, even as they fight the enemies without.