What U.S. Troops Are Doing to Curb Insider Attacks

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Jose CABEZAS / AFP-Getty Images

An Afghan National Army soldier patrols with a U.S. soldier from Apache team, Task force Geronimo in the village of Karizona, Sabari District in Khost Province, Afghanistan on August 5, 2012.

On Tuesday, Pentagon leaders said they’d prefer to call the rash of “green on blue attacks” – where members of the Afghan security forces kill their U.S. and allied partners – “insider attacks” instead. They detailed a roster of steps they’re taking to clamp down on the betrayals, which not only kill Americans but sow distrust that makes U.S. training of Afghan troops much tougher and less efficient.

Calling them “green on blue” attacks “understates the effect that this is having on the [Afghan National Security Forces] itself,” said Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You know, they’re suffering casualties from the same trend that we’re suffering from.”

Alas, the suffering continues: on Friday, a freshly-minted Afghan policeman – having just gotten his weapon before beginning target practice  – shot and killed a pair of U.S. troops involved in his training. It happened in far western Afghanistan, well away from the violence that has wracked the southern and eastern parts of the country. “I’ve been very concerned about these incidents,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday, “because of the lives lost and because of the potential damage to our partnership efforts.”

There have been seven such attacks across the country in the past two weeks, killing 36 allied troops. The concern inside the Pentagon is this: such attacks rarely happened in the first years of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, but they are now becoming common.

Unfortunately, they constitute a powerful weapon: instead of the anonymous, standoff slaughter of a roadside bomb, insider attacks make clear there are deadly forces growing inside the Afghan security forces U.S. taxpayers have spent $52 billion training and outfitting. There is plainly a slice inside the Afghan security forces willing and able to train – and become “friends” – with U.S. troops while awaiting an opportunity to kill as many as possible. “There’s something different about these kinds of killings,” an Army officer says. “They’re up close and personal.”

Militarily, the attacks are insignificant. Nearly 2,000 U.S. deaths in Afghanistan in 10 years is 200 annually; insider attacks are a tiny fraction of that total. As of Tuesday, Panetta said there had been 31 Afghans involved in such attacks out of a force of 350,000, which works out to 0.009% of the total force. “Our forces continue to partner closely in the field, and they have not let these incidents disrupt those operations,” Panetta said.

A report issued Thursday by the four U.S. inspectors general whose agencies are most involved in Afghanistan didn’t even list such attacks as one of the “challenges and risks” associated with building Afghan security forces. “The major risk areas include requirements, acquisition planning, training, financial management and accountability, and corruption,” the report said. But anything that hampers training will leave a less-prepared Afghan force in charge when the U.S. pulls all of its combat troops from the country by 2015.

But the public-relations potential of the insider attacks – their ability to sour the U.S. military, U.S. politicians, and the American public on the war – is a far greater danger than the attacks’ military impact. That accounts for the evolving U.S. explanation as to why they are happening:

— The attacks stem from personal grievances more than support for the Taliban.
— Many such attacks are carried out by insurgents wearing stolen Afghan security-forces uniforms and not by loyal Afghan troops themselves.
— The U.S.-led military campaign is working so well against the Taliban they they cannot fight the U.S. and its Afghan allies in the traditional ways of war, so they have developed this insidious tactic.
— Well, not really. It’s not the Taliban doing most of the killing. “Our enemies have attempted to undermine the trust between the coalition and Afghan forces, and in particular, they have tried to take credit for a number of so-called green-on-blue or insider attacks that have taken place this fighting season,” Panetta said Tuesday.

They have tried to take credit, suggesting that they’re simply piggybacking on crazed local Afghans.

Yet Panetta gives them credit moments later. “One of the reasons the Taliban is targeting in this manner, we believe, is the success that our Afghan partners are having on the battlefield,” the defense secretary said. “The reality is the Taliban has not been able to regain any territory lost, and so they’re resorting to these kinds of attacks to create havoc.”

Panetta, who had alluded to recent mass shootings in the U.S. earlier in Tuesday’s briefing with reporters, obliquely brought them up again when he was asked what is motivating these attacks. “It’s clear that there’s kind of no one source that is producing these kinds of attacks,” he responded. “Some are individuals who, for one reason or another, are upset and suddenly take it out. We’ve seen that here in the United States oftentimes.”

Taliban leader Mullah Omar took credit for the increased attacks in a statement posted on insurgent websites Thursday and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Many Afghans in the rank and files of the enemy have shown a willingness to help the (Taliban) in a shrewd manner,” the statement said. “As a result, the foreign invaders and their allies at their military centers and bases are suffering crushing blows by these heroic soldiers.”

Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, responded to Omar with a quick web statement of his own. “The pride of the Afghan people has been smeared by killers who pose as Soldiers and police, yet they represent the worst of humanity,” he said. “Today, the Afghan Army and National Police are trying to build a better future for the Afghan people, yet Omar wants to stop these efforts. Coalition forces are here to help the people; we have no other reason for being here other than to make Afghanistan a stable country, founded on educated and healthy citizens.”

Allen is taking the following steps to curb such insider attacks, Panetta said:

— “First, to increase the intelligence presence, so that we can try to get better information with regards to these kinds of potential attacks.
— “Also, to increase counterintelligence, to have people trained in counterintelligence to be part of these units so that they can, as well, identify those threats.
— “We have a thorough vetting process. It’s an eight-step process. We’re doing forensics on the particular instances that occur in order to make sure, you know, how that process — that vetting process operated and what we can do to improve it.
— “Implementing a notification process, so that when we get information we can alert people to the threats.
— “Training requirements — we’re not only implementing training requirements with regards to our forces, but the Afghans are doing the same to try to identify these people.
— “We have a guardian angel program which involves identifying 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.”

Allen also is meeting with Afghan village elders. “These are the people who usually vouch for individuals,” Panetta said. “They have to sign something that vouches for the character of individuals. And he is going back to them to ensure that that’s being done properly.”

It’s not like the Afghan troops aren’t being screened. “They’ve discharged hundreds of soldiers who did indicate that some of these young men had the capability to be radicalized, either by virtue of travel back and forth to Pakistan, by literature, by language, by music,” Dempsey said. “There are indicators that we track.”

The threat has become serious enough that Allen is convening a conference of all allied generals and senior enlisted personnel to try to devise new methods of grappling with the insider-attack challenge.

“There’s far more stories about the positive relationship than there is about this particular insider-attack trend,” Dempsey said. “But it is one that we have to remain seized with and focused on.” Such attacks generate positive news, he noted, if in a rancid way: “In one of the recent green-on-blues, which we now try to refer to as insider attacks, it was actually an Afghan special operations forces lieutenant and a sergeant who came to the aid of their American counterparts and lost their lives in the process of coming to their aid.”