Afghanistan’s Insider War Against the U.S.: A Matter of No Trust

In order to protect themselves, Americans must now watch the Afghan soldiers they are training to take over the security of the country

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John Wendle for TIME

An Afghan soldier practices carrying an American soldier during a training session at Combat Outpost Garda in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, Sept. 12, 2012.

Saturday marked the 2,000th U.S. military death in the war in Afghanistan. And it is the way in which the American soldier was reportedly killed – by a presumptive Afghan ally – that makes it significant. These so-called green-on-blue attacks are rarely spectacular – often carried out suddenly, by rifle. Even so, these insider attacks are proving to be the perfect weapon against coalition forces since they accomplish many of the insurgents’ goals with little planning, effort or cost.

Increasingly, coalition troops feel they cannot trust the Afghan soldiers and police with whom they live and serve. The killings drive a wedge of mistrust deeper between foreign and Afghan forces and they also cause the American public to question why Washington is helping the Afghan government and military at all. And these doubts and questions are critical because, in order for the U.S. to declare any kind of victory after the 2014 withdrawal, it has to train and mentor a viable Afghan security force that will respect human rights and prevent a much-feared civil war or Taliban takeover.

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The mistrust and tension was visible during a recent trip to Combat Outpost Garda, in northern Wardak Province. As a U.S. patrol wound its way back over barren, brown hills and through the sunny orchards of apples that make this valley famous among Afghans, word passed back through the soldiers that an Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol would be heading out as they headed in. One soldier joked that he hoped the Afghans would not shoot the patrol as they came in.Some laughed. Soon after, an American lieutenant’s voice crackled through the leaves of the trees from the communications devices carried by all troops, telling the patrol to keep a sharp eye as they returned. Not such a joke, after all.

The actual ability of Afghan troops to help—rather than hurt—coalition partners is risible. At a recent mentoring session in Garda, for example, Afghan soldiers came huffing through the loose gravel of the camp, practicing carrying wounded U.S. soldier across their backs. With little focus placed on training and strength, most of the Afghans were not strong enough to lift an American soldier loaded with body armor, helmet and weapon. Some collapsed into the dirt, laughing. Others dropped their loads with curses. Finally, helmets askew and out of breath, the ANA soldiers reached the shooting range. Hands shaking from the exertion, they peered through their iron sights and tried – sometimes successfully – to hit targets. “Sometimes pray and spray just ain’t enough,” says a U.S. sergeant. “Some of these guys [have such bad aim they] should be armed with rocket propelled grenades.”

While the ANA trained, an American soldier called a “guardian angel” stood in the background, watching over the rest of the U.S. troops with a round in the chamber while the Americans taught. When asked what his job was, another guardian angel, standing by as an Afghan contractor repaired a roof at Forward Operating Base Shank in nearby Logar Province, said, “If he starts acting up, I’m supposed to drop him.” Afghan troops did not seem to be aware of the change or that they were in anyone’s sights.

(MORE: Can the U.S. and NATO Prevent ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks in Afghanistan?)

Just how seriously the U.S. is taking the insider attacks was demonstrated by NATO’s move in mid-September curtailing joint patrols between coalition and Afghan forces. Although Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at a news conference late last week that, “I can now report to you that most ISAF units have returned to their normal partnered operations at all levels,” the new rules governing joint and offensive patrols – drastically reined in last week – remain in force.

The new security measures include having officers at the company and platoon level getting a two star general to sign off on a patrol; the submission of risk assessments; and patrols having to avoid checkpoints where they do not have a good relationship with the Afghans. These, however, have not halted the green on blue killings. The attack late Saturday that killed the 2,000th U.S. soldier took place in southern Wardak, at a checkpoint near an Afghan National Army base in the district of Sayedabad, according to Afghan officials, news agencies reported. NATO and the Afghan military are still investigating the incident. A NATO-contracted civilian was also killed.

Shahidullah Shahid, a provincial government spokesman, told the AP an Afghan soldier had turned his gun on Americans and started shooting. “Initial reports indicate that a misunderstanding happened between Afghan army soldiers and American soldiers,” he said. (On Monday, a Taliban suicide bomber in Khost reportedly killed three NATO troops along with at least 10 other people, including several civilians. While the U.S. may be marking its 2,000th combat fatality since 2001, more than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed in2011 alone in violence perpetrated by combatants on both sides of the conflict.)

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Compared to 35 insider killings for all of last year, at least 52 NATO troops – about half of them American – have been killed in 36 green on blue attacks this year, accounting for 15% of all coalition casualties, AFP reported. NATO says that about 25% of the attacks are carried out by Taliban infiltrators, while the rest are caused by cultural differences and disputes between NATO troops and Afghan forces.

“The signature attack that we’re beginning to see is going to be the insider attack,” U.S. and NATO commander General John Allen told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday. “I’m mad as hell about [insider killings], to be honest with you,” said Allen. “We’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we’re not willing to be murdered for it.”

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