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Fostering mistrust

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
August 6, 2014

A US general killed and more than a dozen people wounded: these are the latest victims of "insider attacks" in Afghanistan which are forfeiting some of the goodwill between Afghans and NATO, an analyst tells DW.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers keep watch at the gate of a British-run military training academy Camp Qargha, in Kabul August 5, 2014.
Image: Reuters

US Major General Harold J. Greene was shot dead on Tuesday, August 5, in an attack that left about 15 US and coalition forces wounded, including a German brigadier general and two Afghan generals. The gunman, who seemed to be a member of the Afghan security forces, was subsequently killed.

The shooting, which took place at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University at Camp Qargha (main picture), a base west of Kabul, was the highest-profile so-called "insider attack"of the conflict so far. Also known as "green-on-blue attacks," these are incidents in which Afghan forces or gunmen in Afghan police or army uniforms turn their weapons on Afghan colleagues or NATO soldiers. The death of Greene - the first US Army general to be killed in an overseas conflict since Vietnam - comes at a crucial time as most foreign troops prepare to leave the conflict-ridden South Asian nation.

Training the Afghan military to take on the Taliban is essential to Washington's exit strategy. The US alone has spent about 62 billion USD on the Afghan security forces since 2002. Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that the latest attack will certainly bring back the memories and sentiments of earlier years, when foreign forces had to look over their shoulders not just in fear of Taliban fighters, but in fear of their purported Afghan allies.

DW: How likely is it that Tuesday's assault was an insider attack?

Michael Kugelman: There are not many clear and absolute indications that this was an insider attack. All that we have are the statements of the Afghan government, which describes the shooter as a member of the Afghan National Army who had been in the institution for two years. That said, this was an attack in a very highly secured area - essentially the West Point of Afghanistan. It would be quite difficult - though certainly not impossible - for a Taliban or other militant to penetrate it from the outside and stage the attack.

Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia.
Kugelman: "These attacks squander some of the ample goodwill and trust that has built up over the years"Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

What reasons could be the behind the attack?

Unfortunately there are several potential reasons: every time such attacks have occurred in Afghanistan, there have been multiple motivating factors at play. There have been cases of Afghan soldiers aggrieved by a particular incident - largely attributed to cultural misunderstandings between Afghan forces and their Western counterparts.

There have also been cases of Afghan soldiers simply unhappy that foreign troops are in their country. Additionally, Afghan security forces are faced with severe challenges such as drug addiction, and so there's always the possibility - no matter how remote - that the perpetrator may have acted irrationally for that reason.

The Camp Qargha is situated west of Kabul. How "dangerous" is that area compared to other places in Afghanistan?

Camp Qargha has been described as Afghanistan's "West Point," and as a premier military training facility, so one can assume that it has very strict security measures in place. That said, these very facilities have become particularly vulnerable in recent months as the Taliban are trying to intensify its attacks on Afghan security targets. They become an even more desirable goal for the Taliban when it has help from the inside, as it would have in this case if it were partnering with the individual that staged the attack.

To which extent are the Afghan armed forces infiltrated by the Taliban?

Exact numbers are difficult, if not impossible to obtain. That said, it's safe to say that Taliban infiltration is not an existential problem for the Afghan military. If one looks at this factor in the context of the "green-on-blue" killings, the data tends to suggest that other motivations - such as cultural misunderstandings - play a larger role.

NATO itself has suggested that insurgent infiltration accounts for only a third of the green-on-blue attacks; and yet Pentagon efforts to forestall these attacks have largely revolved around stopping infiltration more than reducing the cultural disagreements. In short, militant infiltration is a serious matter for the Afghan security forces - but I would argue that illiteracy and drug addiction are much bigger problems.

What have the foreign forces done to prevent such attacks from taking place?

The number of attacks has decreased significantly in the last year or so. There have been nearly 90 such attacks since 2008, yet there were more than 40 in 2012 alone - and yet in 2014, more than halfway through the year, there have been relatively few such incidents.

NATO has undertaken a variety of measures, and based on the reduction of incidents, they seem to be successful. Stricter screening measures have been implemented to reduce the chances that a soldier with militant sympathies would join the Afghan military, and there have also been efforts to have special personnel on site to watch and monitor Afghans and NATO forces when they are working together in close proximity.

Of course, there are limits to such measures. It's impossible for these monitors to be in all places at all times watching over the interactions of Afghan and NATO forces. Also, Afghan troops may well develop militant sympathies after they are already members of the security forces, and it's almost impossible to "detect" or "screen out" Afghans who may have militant sympathies. Ultimately, foreign forces can train Afghans how to fire a gun, to go on missions, or to read maps, but they can't train them not to turn their weapons on their NATO allies.

What impact to the cooperation between Afghan and foreign forces do such attacks have? Do they erode trust?

I would argue that these attacks squander some of the ample goodwill and trust that has built up over the years, and also partially foster mutual distrust. For all the problems in relations between Afghan and foreign forces, trust has grown tremendously in recent years - and especially as the number of green-on-blue attacks has gone down. This latest attack will certainly bring back the memories and sentiments of earlier years, when foreign forces had to look over their shoulders not just in fear of Taliban fighters, but in fear of their purported Afghan allies.

Afghanistan Kabul General Harold J. Greene
US Major General Harold J. Greene was the first US Army general to be killed in an overseas conflict since VietnamImage: Reuters

What is the mood like in the Afghan armed forces, especially given the fact that foreign troops will draw down in the following months?

It's hard to generalize about the mood of an institution with so many personnel; the Afghan National Army alone has 180,000 troops. Certainly there are members who are relieved that the "foreign occupiers," so to speak, are in large part on their way out of the country. I think a more common sentiment, however, is concern and unhappiness that their patrons are on their way out.

There is considerable anxiety in Afghanistan about the US's own timeframe for withdrawal. Assuming there is a bilateral agreement in place by year's end, about 10,000 troops will remain in the country. However, President Obama has stated explicitly that he intends to have every troop out by the end of 2016.

In effect, Obama has advertised the fact that the US will implement the infamous "zero option" in just over two years. Many Afghan soldiers aren't relieved about the likelihood that US forces will remain next year; rather, they're already thinking ahead to 2016 and doing a whole lot of worrying.

How much does the current political crisis have to do with the disappointment and anger in the armed forces?

It's hard to draw direct parallels between the political and security contexts, though there is likely one specific link that can be teased out: Many Afghan soldiers likely want foreign troops to remain in the country after this year, and yet the longer the election crisis is drawn out, and the longer it takes for the new Afghan president to take over power, the greater the chance - no matter how remote at this point - that there will be no bilateral security agreement that allows the US to retain a small post-2014 force in Afghanistan.

Cadets from the Afghan National Police (ANP) march during their graduation ceremony at a police training centre on the outskirts of Jalalabad on July 17, 2013.
For all the problems in relations between Afghan and foreign forces, trust has grown tremendously in recent years, says KugelmanImage: Getty Images/Afp/Noorullah Shirzada

In this sense, the political dysfunction causing the election delay could be upsetting Afghan soldiers who fear the implications for their own security, given that an indefinite delay imperils the chances of a security agreement being signed in time to keep US troops in the country.

How likely are such attacks to continue, especially when foreign nations only have a much small number of troops in the country post 2014?

One might assume the attacks would diminish, simply because of the numbers game: There will be fewer foreign troops in the country, and hence fewer targets and therefore presumably fewer attacks.

However, I'd argue that the number of attacks may rise, because there wouldn't be as much security to protect those foreign forces that remain. Certainly, assuming there is a residual noncombat presence after this year, there will be mechanisms in place to protect them. However, any time you draw down on such a large level - from more than 100,000 troops to less than 10,000 - you are automatically bringing down capacity. And that has troubling implications for the safety of the foreign troops that remain.

Michael Kugelman is an Afghanistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.