Green-on-Blue: How One Attack in Afghanistan Can Define a War

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This photocopy of an image of Abdul Razaq, the killer of the three Marines, was given to the writer by a Marine in Helmand.

The war in Afghanistan has officially entered its twelfth summer. This week, the Taliban launched a sophisticated suicide attack on the Presidential Palace, filling morning rush hour in the country’s most secure location with gunfire and carnage. Meanwhile, the Doha peace process, which is supposed to bring Taliban officials and Kabul to the table, has of yet created more furor than rapprochement. The word quagmire cannot satisfy the questions of the families of the dead. How did we get here? What happened?

Assigned by TIME to investigate incidents in which Afghans betray their coalition partners, novelist Nick McDonell zeroed in on a single bloody night last August. An Afghan National Policeman murdered three of the United States’ most elite Special Forces operators in cold blood. In the aftermath authorities detained the wrong man — whom the media implicated but never cleared — and the attacker escaped. He had been living next door to the Marines he killed for over a month. “Insider attacks” like this one — “green on blues” — have, in their opacity and violence, come to define the war. In 2012, green-on-blue incidents claimed the lives of 64 personnel serving in the international coalition of forces occupying Afghanistan. As General John Allen, former supreme commander of the coalition, put it, they are “the signature attack.”

McDonell unravels one. Tracking the players through Kabul and Helmand he reconstructs their lives, and the process which led to the fatal betrayal. In the tradition of Sebastian Junger’s War and Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts, Green on Blue is a piece of reportage that opens up the conflict through a few men who could never escape it.

To read Nick McDonell’s harrowing, in-depth piece on one green-on-blue attack in Afghanistan, subscribe here. Already a subscriber? Click here.

To buy the expanded, ebook version of this story, click here.


We in the U.S. seem to have a misguided view of certain parts of the world.  This seems abundantly true of Afghanistan.

While I may be wrong I'll bet the majority of Americans see Afghanistan as a country governed by a central government with President Karzai leading.  The truth is that this nation is a collection of tribes ruled very locally by chieftains.  Think of Karzai as the chieftain of the most powerful tribe.  So, as we understand it, there isn't this dedication and loyalty to country by the rank and file Afghanistani military. 

Another aspect of this Afghanistan war is that we aren't trusted.  Muslims in Afghanistan and throughout the Mid-East see our active military involvement as a crusade to crush Islam.  So, killing "invaders" is defending their faith.  And it doesn't matter how that is accomplished.  Green on Blue works for them as does IED's and suicide bombers.

We've been in that country for 12 years.  We accomplished our goal in decimating Al Queada and killing Osama bin Laden.  Our continued presence seems aimed at nation building or, at the very least, in being able to hand over the security of that country to the most powerful tribal chieftain.  While it's right and proper for us to leave the outcome will be very different than we are hoping for.  Look at Iraq and see how well that fragile "democracy" is doing.  Soon after we leave Afghanistan the Taliban will over run that country, take possession of the reins of power, impose their cruel and oppressive version of Sharia law and the most powerful tribal chieftain will flee the country with his bags of money.

What a waste!  We could have done much better had we better understood what we were getting into. 


@AlphaJuliette As an Afghan I both agree and disagree with you on certain points which you have pointed out in your comment. I disagree with you saying that Afghan government is formed by the most powerful tribe as Karzai being the president but from the Pashtun tribe (majority in Afghanistan) which is not a powerful tribe. The Tajiks who are the minority in Afghanistan but are the most powerful tribe and most of the government seats are filled with their people as they assassinate anyone else that might seem a threat to their positions, Like the Oromo in Ethiopia. And yes the soldiers in the Afghan army especially the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks will help their own tribe or their coalition party in time of civil war as they have in the past. 

And by the way, you have stated that America has accomplished their goals in the last 12 years, well if ask me or any other non American they will tell you how much America has accomplished their goals. Well, If killing little kids, women, young men and other family members are your goals then I guess you have already accomplished that in Iraq and expanded it in Afghanistan. I'm not making this all up, in fact this is from experience which I have faced. I too have lost loved ones (in 2011) as many Afghans have. I imagine a family once lived in peace and then bombarded by the US and killed most of their living providers and leaving behind orphans while you thinking of what an awesome job your army has done. 
Indeed, 'what a waste!' killing millions and stealing most of their country's resources which worth trillions and living behind graves and orphans. 
Pardon my English as it's not my native language. 


@AsifKhanNorzai If only your country did not participate in tolerating Al-Qaeda and participated in terrorism activities specifically bombing buildings and killing people during the 9/11 event, your country is not even in the radar of the United States and teach you civility. Instead your kind of race opted to be backward and prevail that illiterate mentality.  Monkeys are more intelligent than you are.


Stealing the country's resources? It is truly laughable if you believe that. The only thing that Afghanistan exports is heroin.