22 Sep. 2012: Rise in insider attacks against foreign soldiers in Afghanistan
An escalation in insider attacks, also known as ‘green-on-blue’ incidents, signifies a new trend of violence that is having a serious impact on the military strategy of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). These attacks have been perpetrated against foreign soldiers (US, ISAF and NATO) and civilian contractors by Afghans either affiliated with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) or wearing ANSF uniforms.
Last week, 6 foreign soldiers were killed in green-on-blue incidents, bringing the number of insider attacks to at least 32 this year with more than 51 ISAF fatalities; this is already twice the number of insider attacks perpetrated in 2011. According to the Long War Journal, 15 per cent of all ISAF casualties this year can be attributed to green-on-blue attacks. These incidents raise important questions about the ongoing and long-term management of security in Afghanistan, about how to deal with insurgents, and about the role of the international community.
ISAF soldiers who serve as trainers and mentors to Afghan security forces are especially vulnerable to such attacks. This increasing level of risk together with rising, widespread anti-US sentiments stemming from the recent release of ‘The Innocence of Islam’ led ISAF to announce on 16 September that joint Afghan-NATO military operations would be scaled back. The critical nature of green-on-blue incidents is also reflected in the fact that both the British and Danish governments have called for this issue to be addressed at the next meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.
According to ISAF, the reduction in joint operations is a temporary measure only and pertains mainly to smaller- and medium-level joint operations, which have in fact been where most of the more effective joint security training has been conducted and where Afghan and international ISAF mentors have worked together closely. This change in operations therefore means that there will be fewer hands-on training opportunities for ANSF with a consequent impact on ISAF’s transition plans, in particular the handover of security responsibilities to ANSF by the end of 2014.
While the Taliban have claimed responsibility for most insider attacks, it is unlikely that they are behind all of them. NATO has confirmed at least one case of insurgent infiltration into the ANSF this year, yet acknowledges that the rate could be as high as 25 percent. Regardless of whether the Taliban are responsible or not, they are nonetheless exploiting each green-on-blue incident as demonstrating that ISAF is struggling and intending to pull out before 2014.
The spike in such attacks is not only indicative of difficulties between ISAF and the ANSF but also raises some other important points:
- Considering the 11-year presence of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, deployed as part of the UN-mandated and (since 2003) NATO-led ISAF, the escalation in insider attacks confirms that the military strategy remains problematic and has had limited success.
- However, in an environment of a well-established insurgency, especially in southern and southeastern Afghanistan, and in view of the forthcoming Presidential elections in 2014, it is paramount that the international community continues to provide adequate security support and training to the ANSF. Insecurity will remain a long-term problem in Afghanistan and the ANSF will require ongoing training in order to be able to manage complex insurgency operations.
- The establishment of an efficient and professional Afghan security force will take time and should not be rushed. Training that emphasizes quality over quantity is essential.
- Unless an effective and implementable system of vetting security personnel is introduced, the risk of green-on-blue incidents will remain high. The vetting of new recruits and the re-vetting of existing security personnel is time-consuming and will slow the rate of recruitment, but is essential irrespective of the 2014 deadline. The Afghan government has already started to re-vet existing ANSF staff members and has discharged a number of members alleged to have links to insurgents.
- Many cases of green-on-blue incidents can be attributed to personal grudges between foreign soldiers and Afghan security forces, often stemming from poor communication and a perceived/real lack of respect. ISAF has not been able to consistently maintain enduring relationships with their Afghan counterparts. Many Afghans are extremely weary of foreign soldiers whose presence in and of itself may be a catalyst for violence. ISAF needs to urgently intensify its efforts to adequately train foreign soldiers in how to work constructively in a society that is deeply religious, traditional and in many cases, conservative.
- The reality is that Afghans are prepared to die in order to kill their international colleagues. The manifold, serious factors contributing to this new violent trend remain unclear and need to be thoroughly investigated.
Dr Bruce Koepke has been working on and in Afghanistan for the last 15 years. Prior to joining SIPRI in August 2012, he was employed with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), initially based in northern Afghanistan and Kabul and later in Tehran where he headed UNAMA’s liaison office. Most recently, he worked in the Joint Analysis and Planning Unit in the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Kabul. Dr Koepke conducted research in Afghanistan during the Taliban period. Read his biography here.