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.