What Drives Insider Attacks in Afghanistan?

Taliban Infiltration Is a Major Factor

U.S. troops and Afghan policemen inspect the site of a suicide attack on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, November 2014.  Parwiz Parwiz / REUTERS

On March 19, three U.S. soldiers were injured and one Afghan commando killed in a so-called green-on-blue attack when an Afghan soldier opened fire in a base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. It was yet another instance in which a disgruntled Afghan soldier turned his gun to kill either NATO personnel or Afghan forces or facilitated Taliban fighters’ attempts to do so. Such insider attacks threaten to undo the progress made after 15 years of war in Afghanistan.

The conventional wisdom is that the spate of attacks comes in retaliation for all sorts of personal grievances—a perceived insult, a cultural gaffe—that harden in the minds of certain Afghan forces. But in a recent study, I found a different motivation. Insider attacks have increasingly become the preferred war-fighting tactic of the Taliban, a group that understands well how to apply limited resources for maximum effect and that understands two weaknesses in the U.S. civil-military apparatus: a deep aversion to casualties and the need to believe that Americans fight for reasons. In turn, the Taliban has been able to drive a wedge between U.S. and Afghan forces.

Since 2007, an estimated 102 documented insider attacks have killed at least 157 NATO personnel—mostly U.S. troops and civilian contractors—and have injured over 205 others. Before 2008, green-on-blue strikes accounted for less than one percent of overall NATO personnel deaths in Afghanistan; however, in 2016, that proportion jumped to 12.5 percent. The U.S. surge of 30,000 troops in December 2009 played an important role in the escalation of insider attacks. To be sure, insider attacks did not cause the U.S. troop surge, but the surge did provide the ground for more visible U.S. and NATO targets for the Taliban to exploit. In some months, these deaths outnumbered those caused directly by the Taliban and other militant groups. The attacks have also resulted in the deaths of approximately 557 Afghan soldiers. Beyond the deaths, the attacks also sowed distrust between NATO personnel and Afghan forces as they fight

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