The killing of a US Army general and wounding of several other NATO forces, including a German general, by a man believed to be an Afghan soldier has once again turned the spotlight on so-called "insider attacks" in Afghanistan. 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.
On Tuesday, August 5, the South Asian nation witnessed the highest-profile "insider attack" of the conflict so far. Dressed in an Afghan army uniform, the attacker fired into a group of international troops at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University at Camp Qargha, a base west of capital Kabul. The slain US military official, Harold Greene, became the first US Army general to be killed in an overseas conflict since the Vietnam War. Germany's military said 15 foreign soldiers were wounded in the incident.
Insider attacks are, however, not new in the war-torn nation. For instance, in 2012 there were more than 40 such assaults, resulting in the deaths of more than 60 NATO-led ISAF troops. But the numbers declined sharply to only 15 in 2013, according to a Pentagon report released in April.
Omar Samad, former Ambassador of Afghanistan to Canada and senior central Asia Fellow at the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation, says that both NATO and Afghanistan implemented a host of measures to prevent such attacks.
They included vetting Afghan recruits prior to their entering the security forces, offering psychological mentoring to troops and providing better education and security, among others. These efforts paid off, leading to the drop in such incidents, Samad told DW.
However, the latest incident once again evokes memories of a time not long ago when an environment of mistrust dominated the relations between Afghan and NATO troops. Such attacks had not only eroded mutual trust, but also hampered international efforts to train Afghanistan's army and police.
The Pentagon noted in its 2014 report that these acts may have "strategic effects on the campaign and could jeopardize the relationship" between coalition troops and Afghan security forces.
For all their problems, trust between both sides has grown tremendously in recent years, says Michael Kugelman, political analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. But these attacks "squander some of the ample goodwill and trust that has built up over the years," he added.
'Impossible to detect'
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby described the attack as an isolated incident, and stressed that it would be impossible to completely eliminate the threat of an insider attack, despite the tough security measures.
Kugelman agrees, pointing out that it is "almost impossible to detect and screen out" Afghans who may have militant sympathies. "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," the expert told DW.
Ambassador Samad cautions that one has to look at the big picture in Afghanistan rather than viewing these incidents as a conflict between Afghan and foreign troops. Attackers also target local security forces, he pointed out. Indeed, the attack on foreign forces was not the only such occurrence on August 5. There were also similar incidents in provinces such as Paktia and Uruzgan where the victims were Afghan security forces.
A host of reasons
There have been disagreements between NATO and the administration in Kabul on the reasons behind the assaults. While NATO says most of them are a result of differences in culture, the Afghan government claims that they are due to the infiltration of Taliban fighters into the military.
Militant infiltration by the Taliban is a serious matter for the Afghan security forces, but this is not an existential problem for the country's military, said Kugelman, adding that the Pentagon's efforts to forestall insider attacks "have largely revolved around stopping infiltration more than reducing the cultural disagreements."
There are a multitude of causes behind these unfortunate events, said analyst Samad. Although Taliban infiltration is one among them, there are also other elements such as personal discontent among the forces, ideological issues and mental health problems, he explained.
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, Kugelman added.
Although the Taliban often claim responsibility for such attacks, they haven't made any such claims in the present case. "The Taliban claim responsibility only when it serves their purpose," Samad explained.
Analysts believe the latest incident also reflects the underlying tensions in Afghanistan as NATO troops prepare for a drawdown by the end of 2014. There is "considerable anxiety" in the country, particularly among the security forces, about the US' timeframe for troop withdrawal, underlined South Asia expert Kugelman.
Furthermore, he added, the number of such attacks on foreign forces may rise as there will probably not be as much security to protect the troops that remain in the country post 2014. "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."