Americans Shouldn't Die at Hands of Afghan Troops

The problem of Afghans killing American troops must be addressed.

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U.S. Army Cpl. Kevin Dehaven, Sniper Team Leader, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, provides security, at Observation Post Mangol, Feb. 8, 2012, in the Nari district, Kunar province, Afghanistan.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The problem of green on blue attacks in Afghanistan—attacks by Afghan security forces (green forces) on U.S. and allied troops (blue forces)—are reaching strategically epidemic proportions. Worse still, this "surge" of green on blue attacks is happening precisely when President Barack Obama's troop surge that sent 33,000 additional troops from 2009 until this past summer has ended. The frustration, justifiably, has reached a boiling point, particularly as this past week marked the 2,000th American death in Afghanistan. As Marine Corps General John Allen, the International Security Assistance Force Commander, told Lara Logan on 60 Minutes this past week:

Well, I'm mad as hell about them, to be honest with you. We're going to get after this. It reverberates everywhere, across the United States. You know, we're willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign. But we're not willing to be murdered for it.

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How bad have the attacks been? Writing in The Diplomat, Robert Dreyfuss has reported that thus far in 2012, 37 separate attacks by Afghan security forces have left 53 International Security Assistance Force troops dead. According to the New America Foundation only 12 soldiers were killed by such attacks prior to 2010—two in 2007 and 10 in 2009. Since 2010 (through September 21, 2012) they claim that 104 International Security Assistance Force troops have been killed by Afghan security personnel—with increases in the number of troops killed in each year. ( The Guardian puts the number at 106 coalition troops killed in 63 attacks since 2010.)

The U.S. Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group has recently developed a tactical reference guide for U.S. and allied troops to spot warning signs about potential insider attacks. While some have derided this effort as a fool's errand, I disagree. The Asymmetric Warfare Group guide itself is useful; the problem, however, is cross-cultural.

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I happen to have a little bit of experience in this regard, although not in Afghanistan. In 2006-07, I was embedded with a small group of fellow reservists and active duty soldiers on a Military Transition Team with an Iraqi light infantry battalion in western Ninewa province in the northwest part of the country. While we did not experience directly any green on blue incidents, the issue was never far from our minds. On one occasion, for instance, Iraqi soldiers from the battalion stumbled upon and killed three particularly nasty insurgents. Upon closer examination of these insurgents' effects a list of 10-digit grid coordinates (a 10-digit grid coordinate gives you your location on the earth within roughly 6 feet of accuracy) was found. (One of these coordinates was to a breach in the concertina wire of our Iraqi base that was nearly undetectable.) Worse still, several Iraqi army uniforms were discovered near that breach. That was extremely sobering.

Internally to the battalion there were also concerns. The battalion executive officer (the second in command of the battalion and the person in command when the commander was on his weekly monthly leave) was a former Baath political officer in Saddam Hussein's army from Diyala province. He liked to make veiled, and sometimes unveiled, threats. As we flagged this individual as a problem every month in our reporting, my insurance policy against these threats was to build relationships with his (and the rest of the battalion leaderships') personal security detail every week. Smoking cigarettes and drinking chai with these soldiers (who all were genuinely nice and hilarious), if nothing else, put my mind at ease that they might at least hesitate if they were given an order to do something bad. This is building rapport. Asymmetric Warfare Group discusses this on their reference guide. It is important, but after a decade of war, and after only moving toward the transition strategy to Afghan security forces late in the game it may now be too late. (And, on top of all of that, the services still resist properly screening personnel to determine who should and should not be an adviser. My name for such duty, for instance, was drawn randomly from a computer database.)

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Much American and allied blood and treasure has been spilled and spent in Afghanistan. As Osama bin Laden is dead and as no future American president, Democrat or Republican, will allow a terror training facility to re-emerge and metastasize in Afghanistan, this spate of green on blue attacks may be an opportunity to push the Afghan government for real change on the ground. If that change does not occur, then the United States should use this justifiable reason to rapidly and immediately begin to draw down the size of International Security Assistance Force forces in Afghanistan and implement a new smaller footprint approach centered around intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets, airpower, and special operations forces as argued by analysts such as Austin Long.

American men and women at arms, and those of our allies, should not die senselessly at the hands of our alleged Afghan partners. We need to drastically dial back expectations about the creation of a democratic country in a space that is more geographic expression than state.