November 15, 2012

The Other Tragic Foreign Story

In Afghanistan, fratricide-style insider attacks are calling into question U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

The U.S. security debacle in Libya has rightly been scrutinized for the past several weeks. The murder of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Benghazi consulate on September 11 demonstrated the abysmal level of protection for State Department officials in the North African country. An equally devastating story, however, has only partially surfaced from Afghanistan—the “insider attacks” on Western troops by their putative Afghan partners. These assaults hold extraordinary implications for America’s future anti-terror campaign throughout the Middle East and Africa. Such fratricide-type killings stab at the very heart of U.S. military cooperation with allies.

What has taken place in the Afghan war has truly astounding strategic ramifications for U.S. strategy to combat al-Qaeda and its associated movements. Yet, these insider attacks have received little attention from Washington. So far this year, more than 53 American and NATO military personnel have died at the hands of their supposed Afghan comrades-in-arms. Turncoat Afghan soldiers and police have fired their guns on the very Western troops who trained and mentored them to take over the fight against the Taliban once conventional international forces withdraw by the close of 2014. About 50 loyal Afghan troops have also died in these murderous actions.

  the moral case for romneycare 2.0 by scott atlas  
  Illustration by Barbara Kelley

The “green-on-blue” attacks, as the military dubs them, have frayed the trust that existed between the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and their Afghan allies. These turncoat killings stand to upend the centerpiece of Washington’s evolving strategy to combat a rising Islamist insurgent tide in many corners of the globe.

Islamist-induced violence plagues not only Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya, all of which draw media attention, but also countries much less covered by the press. Insurgencies and terrorist-instigated turmoil are blazing in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, Nigeria, and the Philippines, too. Some of these local terrorist networks are linked to al-Qaeda. Others long for its blessing. So, they commit particularly gruesome acts to win recognition. In addition, they echo the obligatory anti-Western credo.

Other terrorist-insurgent cells share al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy but operate independently and focus on their own localities rather than directing themselves to a global jihad against the West. Whatever the precise nature of their aims, each bears watching and some the United States should intervene against, at least indirectly and limitedly, so as to deny them sanctuaries necessary to mount anti-American terrorism.

America’s Evolving Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Over the past few years, America’s counter-terrorism strategy has evolved. The huge human and financial costs in the Iraq and Afghan wars militate against launching the large-scale invasions, regime changes, and troop-intensive occupations, required for nation-building, of the George W. Bush era.

Now, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency are relying on a three-pronged approach. Their current anti-terrorist strategy embraces: (1) U.S. surveillance and missile strikes from overhead drones; (2) special-forces teams for commando raids; and (3) training-advising operations to host-nation forces. Surveillance and airstrikes as well as in-and-out hits are designed to gather intelligence and eliminate al-Qaeda-linked networks in forbidding terrain.

These are necessary, but not sufficient, tactics to destroy the scattered terrorist-insurgent bands. Eyes, ears, and daggers are also required on the ground. Therefore, the purpose of the third prong is the instruction and guidance of a friendly on-the-ground military presence. This tactic spares Washington from deploying a sizeable land force. The local soldiers and police, if properly trained and mentored, extend the local government’s writ while fighting insurgents. And critically, they can eliminate or decrease the likelihood of jihadists carving out safe havens free from counter-attack.

Where local authorities have been unwilling or unable to act against militants, the United States resorts unilaterally to armed drones and special-operations assaults to kill or capture terrorists. In Pakistan, for example, the CIA relies on drone strikes against al Qaeda remnants and Taliban elements residing in North Waziristan or directs them at the Haqqani network straddling the Pak-Afghan border. The Pakistani government objects to the violation of its sovereignty and the deaths of innocent bystanders, who are inadvertently killed in the course of taking down militants. In Yemen, the Pentagon and CIA carry out drone strikes with the government’s concurrence against al-Qaeda affiliates.

Across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the United States has employed both missiles and commando raids, while turning to the CIA to help identify Islamist terrorists. Washington has also turned to the armies of nearby African countries to intervene as a land force to assist Somalia’s frail central government in fighting the al Qaeda-associated al Shabaab movement. In the Philippines, Special Operations Forces work closely with the Filipino forces to push back Islamic militants. But Manila barred the American special warriors from going into combat against the terrorist bands. They are limited to support roles.

In many other parts of the world, U.S. armed forces carry out instructing and mentoring operations with indigenous soldiers to prepare and guide them in their struggle against Sharia-inspired militants. This engagement is crucial to arrest the proliferation of low-intensity conflicts in a variety of places.

Threats To The Strategy

But now, the Afghan Taliban and their allied networks, which have resorted to green-on-blue attacks, endanger that vital cooperative formula. The Taliban has insinuated assassins into the regular ranks of the army and police. These killers have turned their arms on U.S. and other Coalition forces, including allied Afghans. Others acted on their own without Taliban coaching. In cases where the Taliban did not actually infiltrate a shooter into ISAF units, it still propagandized the assaults to drive a wedge between Afghan and allied soldiers.

What gives these Afghan attacks a strategic dimension is the centrality that the U.S. military has placed on incorporating indigenous forces into its campaign against al-Qaeda and its imitators. This strategy dates back to the Cold War, when the Pentagon formed defensive partnerships around the world.

The Defense Department’s so-called Foreign Internal Defense (FID) activities are train-and-equip missions aimed at boosting the capabilities of a recipient nation’s armed forces. The end of the Soviet Union has seen FID missions morph from conventional defense measures to counter-insurgency and anti-terror operations. In our age of pervasive terrorism, local-led counter-terrorist efforts have surged in importance.

As part of its cooperative ventures, U.S. military advisors instruct host-nation forces in counterinsurgency techniques. To train local armies, the Pentagon currently deploys advisors to some 70 countries. The Pentagon relies on the “Indirect Approach” to confront the Islamist threat. This course of action emphasizes working “by, through, and with” surrogate forces to combat militants rather than direct American participation in the fight. It is economical and it decreases the indigenous backlash against a large U.S. military profile. Islamist insurgents operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa have capitalized on xenophobic and anti-Muslim feelings toward the presence of foreign, particularly American or European, troops.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps perfected the Indirect Approach during the Iraq War. There, they achieved a spectacular turnaround by reaching out and then cooperating with Sunni chiefs who opposed the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda. Sunni tribal leaders and their tribesmen had tired of al-Qaeda’s near-indiscriminate bombings as well as targeted assassinations to intimidate the population into accepting the strict tenets of Sharia doctrine. The Islamic State of Iraq (the Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda) also interfered with tribal rule and custom, thereby incurring the wrath of the tribes’ chieftains, many of whom lost money from smuggling because of the extremists’ demands and extortion.

When the aggrieved tribal chiefs turned to the Army and Marines for help, in what became known as the Sunni Awakening, the collaboration permitted Coalition forces to beat back the Islamist movement by the end of 2007. Along with a surge of an additional 28,500 U.S. troops, the Sunni Awakening reversed the momentum and then all but stamped out the Islamic State of Iraq. Moreover, the Sunni-American victory handed al Qaeda a defeat in Iraq, the country that Osama bin Laden deemed the central front in the war against the Crusaders and Zionists. The success was so great it became a model for the war in Afghanistan.

The hard-won Iraqi defensive program now stands in jeopardy from insider attacks taking place in Afghanistan. The green-on-blue killings have worked to sever the trust between Afghan troops and ISAF. Part of the explanation for these assaults lies with the rapid pace set for recruiting and standing up an Afghan security forces to fill the withdrawing ranks of Western troops by the end of 2014. Armies and police forces take years to build. Rushing the process opens vulnerabilities with failures in security checks on recruits and in fashioning national cohesion. 

The Taliban claims that the shootings are the work of their infiltrators who have penetrated the Afghan-ISAF security screens. ISAF and the Kabul government argue that only about 25 percent of the murders are traceable to infiltration by Taliban agents. Instead, they attribute them to the cultural insensitivities of Western troops toward Afghan customs. Foreigners, for example, may ask an Afghan soldier about his wife or children—topics considered taboo in the mountainous country. Personal grudges and anger are other explanations. The Afghans feel that they have been humiliated by ISAF soldiers who scold their partners for inattentiveness to their professional duties like being ready for attacks, keeping their rifles clean, and not stopping for tea in the middle of a combat patrol.

Initial Reactions To Green-On-Blue Warfare

When the Afghan attacks on Coalition soldiers spiked in mid-September of 2012, the ISAF command temporarily restricted joint military exercises between Afghan and coalitional forces in small patrols. Prior to the order, it was common for joint forces to patrol and to man outposts together in the oft-repeated catchphrase “shoulder-to-shoulder.” The directive required a two-star general’s approval to lift the order on what had been routine operations.

A month later, ISAF relaxed the restrictions. But the U.S. military implemented other precautions. When American and Afghan forces gather together, the U.S. officers designate some troops as “Guardian Angels,” who stand alert with weapons at the ready rather than unloading and stacking their rifles in safe areas. When U.S. troops travel into some villages controlled by the Afghan army or police, they “go red” meaning they have rounds chambered and ammo magazines inserted in their rifles.

For its part, the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD) took several steps to curtail the insider attacks. It detained or ejected hundreds of security personnel to allow for re-screening of suspected infiltrators. This re-processing uncovered dubious letters of recommendations from village elders on behalf of prospective army and police recruits. Now Kabul pledges that Afghans with doubtful loyalties will be subjected either to expulsion from the security forces or to further investigation.

The MOD also issued a 28-page instructional booklet in late September advising Afghans not to be personally distressed over Western behavior deemed culturally offensive. This pamphlet urged Afghans not to take up arms against a Western soldier for stepping in a mosque while wearing shoes, for blowing his nose in public, or walking in front of praying Afghans. How much good the cultural manual will do in a country where illiteracy is about 75 percent remains to be seen.

The larger U.S. strategy itself is equally cloudy. In some sense, the cat is out of the bag. The Taliban, al Qaeda, and other militant movements can be expected to utilize infiltration or intimidation to pressure members of the security forces to turn their coats. The menace could proliferate quickly beyond Afghanistan. In the past, al Qaeda and its acolyte groups have been quick studies in the black arts of terrorism—quick to learn, quick to execute, and quick to transfer techniques.

Take suicide bombings, for example. They were perfected in Sri Lanka by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the last two decades of the twentieth century. The Tamil Tigers also pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks. This suicide-killing weapon was picked up by Hezbollah and other Shiite groups in southern Lebanon and employed against the Israelis during the 1980s. It was a suicide truck-bomber who blew up the Marine Corps Barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen in October 1983. Post haste, this deadly device proliferated across the regions. Now the use of pedestrian or vehicular suicide bombings is ubiquitous in the lands stretching from the Suez Canal to the Hindu Kush.

Simple but effective instruments are the hallmark of present-day Islamist terrorist cells. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are built by bomb makers without a PhD in engineering. Recall also that al Qaeda terrorists used box cutters to commandeer the airliners they crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Motivating and infiltrating inside attackers is a mere step from indoctrinating teenaged youths to be suicide bombers. The Taliban and other Islamist movements are past masters of the techniques involved to convince people to kill themselves while taking the lives of others.

The United States, on the other hand, proved slow in adapting to this Middle East-brand of warfare. Fixated on the Vietnam War and determined never again to be entrapped in full-blown insurgency, the Pentagon failed for far too long to build protected trucks to withstand planted bombs—at great costs to Army and Marine infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nearly ubiquitous IED killed and maimed thousands of American and Coalition troops in both theaters. Despite their simplicity—fertilizer and detonators fashioned from wires or garage openers—the IEDs have defied billions of dollars spent on counter-measures to detect or to disarm them completely.

It took years for the U.S. government to field sufficient quantities of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (the MRAPs) first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan to reduce, but not eliminate, the casualties from roadside bombs. Other improvisations reduced the IED toll. The U.S. Air Force honed its air-dropped supply techniques with GPS guided parachute payloads. The Marines and then the Army turned to computer software programs to help them track, predict, and find the location of hidden IEDs before suffering deaths and injuries. These counter-measures have reduced the number but not halted casualties from the inexpensive, makeshift bombs.

The Next Steps

The United States must turn to defeating, or at least greatly decreasing, the threat of “green on blue” attacks. Lessons learned from Afghanistan should be gathered, analyzed, and disseminated to other battlefields. Vetting of recruits is critical to limit the infiltration of Taliban agents into the ranks of local armies. The nations receiving U.S. instruction and guidance have a large role in checking backgrounds of potential enlistees. After all, the local authorities know the language, customs, and human affiliations of their troops far better than their foreign counterparts. Recent history in both Iraq and Afghanistan informs us that local forces may not always be up to the task. Hence, American personnel must also play a part in screening their potential comrades-in-arms. 

Already, the Army and Marines enlist biometric data, such as fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs to track Afghans and to hinder militant movement around the country. Biometric dossiers are compiled in the American Embassy computers. Suspects are placed on watch lists, which have proven effective in identifying bomb-makers and terrorist facilitators. Computers also aid in extensive record-keeping to keep taps on suspected terrorists. Although America’s direct part in Afghanistan’s insurgency is winding down, its over-watch role continues as advisors and mentors. Biometric documenting, thus, will continue to be a vital factor in identifying foes.

Other theaters in Africa and the Middle East can also apply biometric databases to track, arrest, and physically separate suspected terrorists from ordinary citizens in ways that the Vietnam War’s Strategic Hamlets could never isolate the Viet Cong.

Islamist militancy shows no signs of receding. Thus, it will take commitment to digest and learn from America’s recent twin wars. Counter-insurgency has always involved police work to track down guerrillas and bring them to justice. So like good constables, the U.S. military must sharpen its detective skills. This will require determination to enhance the human investigative and biometric techniques to counter the insidious danger posed by insider attacks to America’s strategy of host-nation participation in the conflict against global jihadists. 


Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His current research focuses on American foreign policy, international political affairs, and insurgencies. He specializes in the study of US diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens in the non-Western world and toward the so-called rogue states, including North Korea and Iran. Henriksen's most recent volume, America and the Rogue States, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. Its predecessor, American Power after the Berlin Wall, narrated US military and diplomatic interventions around the globe after the Cold War. His most recent monograph is WHAM: Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan and Elsewhere.


Mr. Henriksen is also Senior Fellow at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University. The views in this essay are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or any of its entities.

Letters to the editor may be sent to definingideas@stanford.edu. Editors reserve the right to reject or publish (and edit) letters.