Unfriendly Fire: Can the U.S. and NATO Prevent ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks in Afghanistan?

Doing proper background checks to ascertain if recruits have Taliban affiliations is just one of the many challenges facing the U.S. and NATO as they prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014

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John Wendle for TIME

Alam Gul, a prospective recruit for the Afghan Local Police, is questioned as part of the vetting process for entry into the force by a U.S. soldier

Alam Gul, a potential Afghan Local Police (ALP) recruit sat cross-legged on a mat outside the unit’s crumbling, mud-brick headquarters in the village of Tabin, in Kandahar’s restive Arghandab district, alternately looking at his hands and at the sky as he answered a series of questions. Two ALP members sat watching nearby, while others washed motorbikes or lounged in the sun. The U.S. Army specialist and staff sergeant in charge of the interview were getting increasingly frustrated with the young man.

Seemingly simple questions often have no good answer in Afghanistan. When asked where he lived, Gul only said that “there are four or five houses between my home and the mosque.” Asked in what direction from the mosque, he, like many uneducated Afghans, did not know the meaning of north, south, east and west. He guessed his age as being “between 28 and 30.” His secondhand motorcycle was unregistered. He had no mobile number. It was even unclear at which mosque he worshipped, since he could not read a map and Staff Sergeant John Fox did not know the names of all the mosques in the area. Fox, working with experienced interpreter Aziz Mohammad Shirzada, was finally able to narrow it down to only: “Right there, when we come around that corner going into Bala Tabin.”

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The answers were crucial since NATO and the U.S. use registration numbers and interviews with mullahs and village-council members to find out more about the men who apply for positions with the ALP, as well as the army and the police. The vetting process was deemed critical after members of extremist militias in Iraq were inadvertently armed by the U.S. in a similar effort called the Sons of Iraq, put into place in 2005, after being insufficiently screened. But with no contact details, little verifiable history and no address or registration number, the Americans were running out of ways to figure out who exactly the young man was. Doing proper background checks to ascertain if recruits could have Taliban affiliations or sympathies is just one of the many challenges facing the U.S. and NATO as they prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Nearly a quarter of all combat fatalities in Afghanistan this year were “green on blue” attacks, with 45 U.S. and NATO soldiers killed by Afghan soldiers and police thus far. As an emergency measure to help cope with the rising tide of “insider attacks,” Lieut. General Adrian Bradshaw, the British deputy commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, announced Sunday that the training of around a thousand recruits had been put on hold to allow for revetting of 16,300 members of the ALP. “This precautionary measure is in response to concerns by Afghan, U.S. and other coalition commanders over recent insider threat incidents,” he said in a press release. “The measures being applied to Afghan National Army special forces and ALP personnel reflects the intensive effort to recheck the vetting status of the roughly 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces personnel as part of a number of actions recently instituted to reinforce existing precautions related to the insider threat.”

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The loyalty, reliability and professionalism of those 350,000-plus Afghan troops is essential if Washington and Brussels’ endgame in Afghanistan is to have any success. NATO is introducing a number of new measures to deal with the crisis: it is scaling up its counterintelligence teams, instituting new interview procedures for Afghan soldiers returning from leave, establishing a warning system for insider threats and enhancing cultural training for Afghan personnel. Still, in a country with such strained resources and few written records, it remains unclear how effective these improvements can be.

The recent spate of killings has shown the vulnerability of Afghan security forces like the ALP, which offers recruits just three weeks of training before they operate remotely, in their home villages. “Since the creation of the ALP, there have been concerns about infiltration by the Taliban and other insurgents,” says Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. who worked at high levels of the U.S. Special Operations command in Afghanistan. “I can say that from firsthand experience.”

Jones says that to minimize insurgent infiltration, the vetting process must be improved. “The greatest threat from infiltration is probably less in undermining the ALP, which have helped undermine Taliban control of some rural areas, and more in creating political tension between the United States and Afghanistan,” he says. “A loss of trust between Afghan and U.S. soldiers would be extremely damaging.” But, after so many killings, even with NATO’s suspension of training and the implementation of new security measures, that trust may already have been broken beyond repair.

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