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 a common enemy.
There are several reasons such attacks happen. First, the Taliban has focused on infiltrating Afghan forces as a way not only to target Afghan and NATO personnel but also to collect tactical intelligence and undermine their cooperation. Most infiltration is in the ranks of the poorly vetted Afghan local police, a network of U.S.-funded village defense units that receive basic training from U.S. forces to protect their communities.
Second, the Taliban recruits rogue and aggrieved Afghan police or army personnel to either facilitate an insider attack or personally conduct attacks on behalf of the insurgency. The Taliban often coerces Afghan soldiers through financial incentives, ideological pressure, and intimidation—including the kidnapping of family members—as well as the influence of tribal networks.
The Taliban has focused on infiltrating Afghan forces as a way to target Afghan and NATO personnel.
Third, the Taliban is adept at impersonation, with members posing as Afghan police or army personnel to evade security inspection and barriers while infiltrating checkpoints. The group is known to have used counterfeit Afghan soldiers’ uniforms and identity cards to penetrate Afghan security ranks. At times, these tactics have involved some level of facilitation or complicity by rogue Afghan soldiers, especially in providing identification cards and access to bases.
Finally, in personally motivated attacks, a disgruntled Afghan soldier often acts independently and without any guidance or pressure from the Taliban. Reasons behind personal clashes vary but can include grievances rooted in personal insults, cultural misunderstanding, disrespect for religious beliefs and local norms, and civilian casualties. At times, miscommunication between Afghan and NATO personnel has stoked tensions. At other times, interpreters and cultural advisers have inaccurately interpreted conversations, creating misunderstanding and bad emotions. And in some cases, interpreters have inserted their personal opinions during translation, creating false impressions and problems.
At least 25 percent of all 102 insider attacks since 2007 are attributed to Taliban infiltration, influence, or impersonation; 14 percent to co-optation of an Afghan soldier by the Taliban; and over 40 percent to personal motives and grievances of Afghan security force members. The causes of the remaining attacks are unknown, mainly because the attacks in question saw the assailants immediately killed in the crossfire.
HOW TO LIMIT ATTACKS
U.S. and Afghan soldiers carry personal and cultural baggage, which the Taliban will do its best to exploit. That is why senior U.S. officials recognize that the United States and NATO must educate their troops on local cultural and social norms. However, soldiers do not always incorporate such awareness into their behavior. Even in joint bases and facilities, there have been reportsof Afghan soldiers verbally abused and ridiculed in the presence of other soldiers.
In one example from March 2013 in Bagram Air Base, a U.S. soldier harshly reprimanded an Afghan commander in public when he inadvertently steered TV crews to a sensitive location to film. In response, the infuriated Afghan commander told the U.S. soldier through his translator: “If I had a gun, I would empty an entire magazine in your stomach.” Some of the common grievances among U.S. troops about Afghan soldiers, according to a 2011 study, include “illicit drug use, massive thievery, personal instability, dishonesty, no integrity, incompetence, unsafe weapons handling, corrupt officers, covert alliances with insurgents, high desertion rates, bad morale, laziness, repulsive hygiene, and the torture of dogs.”
NATO and Afghan commanders have taken several measures to respond to the threat, including revising their training requirements for Afghan forces, tightening the recruitment process, and registering over 90 percent of Afghanistan’s 350,000-strong security forces into a biometric database. In some instances, new Afghan police recruits conducted field exercises with wooden rifles; in other cases, weapons provided to new recruits for training purposes often had their bolts and magazines removed to avoid potential risk to the NATO trainers.
Additional measures include greater U.S. intelligence presence on the ground; an order for NATO soldiers to be, at all times, within arm’s reach of a loaded weapon; integrating “guardian angels” into Afghan units to spy on fellow soldiers; and suspending joint patrols and operations with small Afghan army and police units below the battalion level. Afghan and NATO commanders have also developed various cultural guidebooks to educate soldiers from both sides about cross-cultural cooperation.
Since these changes were put in place in mid-2012, Afghan authorities have detained or removed hundreds of soldiers, and insider attacks have decreased by over 80 percent. However, Afghan soldiers, and especially the local police, remain prone to Taliban infiltration through any number of means. Identity cards can still be forged, tribal leaders can still be intimidated or influenced, and with corruption no secret in Afghanistan, low- and midlevel screeners in Afghan security institutions can still be bribed.
Insider attacks remain a complex phenomenon, but they are not new to modern wars. There will always be some level of uncertainty, but the underlying problem is not just personal grievance but also Taliban infiltration. The penetration is made possible because of the dangerous operational shortfalls that permeate Afghan security institutions. Chief among them are the significant leadership gaps that exist in security institutions both in Kabul and across all six regional combat corps. Afghan forces dangerously lack crucial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that severely affect their combat effectiveness. Despite the fact that counterinsurgency is an intelligence-driven endeavor, coordination among Afghan security and intelligence forces is minuscule.
Additionally, Afghan security institutions are increasingly politicized. Interference by political strongmen in security affairs that disregards formal command structures is a regular occurrence. The Afghan local police units, where the majority of Taliban infiltration takes place, epitomize this dynamic. Out of the 30,000 men constituting the Afghan local police, thousands of its members serve as bodyguards to local strongmen. In other cases, a significant portion of the police exists only on paper.
Because of these critical operational gaps, Afghan forces endured an alarming 15,000 casualties in the first eight months of 2016 alone. Afghan forces also suffer a 2.4 percent attrition rate each month, which severely undermines their operational posture. Serious measures need to be taken to fundamentally overhaul the leadership and institutional capacity of Afghan security institutions at both strategic and tactical levels. This would categorically minimize Taliban infiltration or the odds of Afghan forces becoming willing to kill their international partners.