Little U.S., NATO Leaders Can Do About 'Insider Attacks'

A new program to combat Afghan attacks on Western troops could undermine the shaky partnership at a bad time.

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An Afghan National Army soldier carrying rocket propelled grenades walks past ruins as he and his colleagues patrol the village of Noor Khiel, Logar province, east Afghanistan.

A number of recent fatal attacks on U.S. and Nato forces by Afghan security forces reveals there are few ways for U.S. and NATO officials to prevent similar attacks in the future.

On 32 occasions during the first eight months of this year, individuals wearing Afghan security uniforms have attacked U.S. or other Western troops. With four months to go in 2012, a figure that is already 11 above last year could climb even higher.

U.S. and NATO commanders have established several programs aimed at bringing that figure down, including a newly-minted effort called "Guardian Angel." That program will put U.S. troops in positions to monitor Afghan forces--and take out would-be attackers. Another calls for American forces to always have a live round in the chamber of their weapons.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed the spate of Afghan-on-Western shootings--which the Pentagon now calls "insider attacks"--during a Sunday telephone conversation

The two leaders "expressed shared concern over this issue and agreed that American and Afghan officials should work even more closely together to minimize the potential for insider attacks in the future," the Pentagon said in a statement. Panetta and Karzai agreed to beef up counterintelligence efforts, toughen vetting of Afghan troops and work closer with Afghan village elders.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, landed Monday in Kabul, where he huddled with U.S., NATO and Afghan officials to discuss the insider attacks and what might be done to combat them.

NATO and U.S. officials have not been able to pin the attacks on Taliban operatives posing as Afghan troops. That means it is likely most of the attacks are Afghan soldiers with an axe to grind.

One Afghanistan expert, Joshua Foust of the American Security Project, says there is very little that can be done.

"There really is no settled policy on how to deal with this," Foust says. "Simply positioning U.S. troops everywhere doesn't address the actual problem."

The "Guardian" program might prevent future insider attacks, but it also could undermine relations between U.S. and Afghan forces at a time when cooperation is key as NATO hands more authority to indigenous forces.

"The relationship is already under strain, but I don't think it's broken just yet," Foust says. "But adding in an extra layer of guards is a major change in how the U.S. will be conducting this partnership."

President Obama and other NATO leaders have agreed to a withdrawal plan under which all American and Western forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

"These attacks, as terrible as they are, won't change the withdrawal strategy," Foust says. "What it could change is how Americans see the final days of the war. Will it be, 'We did our best and now we're leaving,' or will it be, 'We're leaving and the Afghans are shooting at us and just want us gone'?"

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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