Western nations preparing to withdraw from combat in Afghanistan increasingly are alarmed by Afghan security forces turning their weapons on allied troops, attacks that the Taliban claim as proof of their sway over local troops.
Five such attacks have occurred in the past week — the deadliest on Friday, when six U.S. troops were killed by Afghan security personnel in two separate incidents.
The so-called green-on-blue attacks have heightened tensions and frayed nerves among coalition troops as international forces aim to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“Probably the biggest area of frustration is the continued lack of trustworthiness of many members of the Afghan National Army [ANA], as demonstrated by the disturbing frequency of green-on-blue violence,” said Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
“The overall combat effectiveness and ability of the ANA to operate independently is obviously a focus of major concern and effort. But in terms of outright frustration, I would think the tenuous loyalties of members of a force that is supposed to be our ally would rank most highly,” he said.
The term “green-on-blue” is a standard military reference that originated in attacks by host security forces on U.N. peacekeepers, who wear blue helmets. However, the international coalition in Afghanistan is not a U.N. peacekeeping force and does not wear blue helmets.
As of Monday, there have been 29 green-on-blue attacks this year and a total of 37 coalition deaths, 21 of which have been Americans, according to statistics provided by the Pentagon.
At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta expressed concern that such attacks occur, in part because of the “potential damage to our partnership efforts.”
The attacks also are taking a toll on troop morale.
“For our service members operating in the field hearing about these attacks, it is only natural to be concerned about their welfare and that of their buddies, and to have a heightened sense of awareness,” said Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman. “Anyone in that position would do the same, and we don’t discount the impact of these tragedies on individual morale.”
In a letter Tuesday to commanders in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos sought to soothe the rattled nerves of troops. He said such attacks show that the U.S. is winning the war against Taliban insurgents.
“When faced with the stark reality of what has just happened, it would be easy to give in to the belief that these attacks indicate we are losing the fight,” Gen. Amos wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “In fact, the opposite is true.
“These attacks are occurring because we are winning the fight in [regional command southwest],” he said. “Over the last four years, we have steadily improved the security situation in Helmand [province]. Historical casualty levels have steadily declined. Afghan security forces have made dramatic improvements in dependability, capability and performance.”
Countering the attacks
The Marines suffered their worst so-called “green-on-blue” fatalities on Friday. An Afghan police officer fatally shot three Marines he had invited to dinner in Helmand province. That same day, three Marines assigned to a training unit were killed by an Afghan policeman in Helmand.
Military leaders and defense analysts have downplayed the Taliban’s self-proclaimed role in the attacks, some of which have occurred after personal conflicts between Afghan and allied troops. Defense officials say the attacks have had no operational impact.
“We are certainly concerned” about green-on-blue attacks, said Cmdr. Speaks, the Pentagon spokesman.
“But it is important to remember that the 31 shooters in incidents this year make up less than 1/100th of 1 percent of all [Afghan security] personnel,” he said. “These insidious attacks are designed to sow doubt among the coalition forces and our Afghan partners, but we will not be deterred,” he added.
In his letter to Marine commanders, Gen. Amos said: “Faced with our undeniable momentum and his own failure, the enemy is increasingly forced to resort to spectacular attacks. I am confident that these recent attacks were carefully crafted to drive a wedge between us and our Afghan partners. This is a common theme in the latter stages of a counterinsurgency operation. We saw the same thing in Iraq after the balance had tipped in our favor.”
To stop the attacks, the military is taking several steps, including increasing counterintelligence and putting into place an eight-step vetting process for Afghan security forces recruits.
The huge financial investment made by the U.S. and its NATO allies in Afghanistan’s security forces is being undermined not only by green-on-blue attacks, but by rampant corruption, nepotism and divided loyalties within these institutions.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations last month that similar “divided loyalties” opened the door to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, years of civil war and eventually the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul in 1992.
“Even high-level military officers and government officials left to join the same Pashtun, Tajik, or Hazara Islamist militias that they had only recently been fighting against,” he said.
“The threat that similar divisions could split the current Afghan central government must be taken seriously, given the rise of a new Northern Alliance and factional divisions among Pashtuns,” he added. The Northern Alliance is made up of non-Pashtun ethnic groups, mainly Tajiks and Uzbeks, who joined forces to fight the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.
U.S. and Afghan officials readily acknowledge these problems, but a solution remains elusive.
“There are fault lines in [Afghan] institutions based on ethnicity, and that is the painful history of Afghanistan,” said Said T. Jawad, who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2003 to 2010. “There is definitely a need to focus on the morale, the commitment and the loyalty of the troops so that their loyalty lies with the Afghan flag.”
Mr. Jawad has been mentioned as a potential successor to Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who resigned as defense minister last week after receiving a vote of no confidence from the parliament. Mr. Jawad lacks military experience, but is well-connected in Washington, where he is based.
Others whose names have been floated for the position are former Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, former Deputy Defense Minister Atiquallah Baryalai and Education Minister Farooq Wardak.
One of the biggest challenges for the next minister will be to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the U.S. that will determine the conditions for the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
“It will be a hard sell for both countries to their own people,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, the Afghanistan-based country director of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
President Obama intends to leave a small follow-on force in Afghanistan that would focus on training the Afghan military to full capacity and conducting joint counterterrorism operations after 2014.
The U.S. administration will have its work cut out trying to win Congress’ approval for such a force, said Mr. Miakhel. The Afghan government will have the challenge of justifying the presence of these troops to the Afghan people, determining the role they will play under Afghan law and managing the reaction of Afghanistan’s neighbors who look warily on a U.S. presence in the region, he added.
Meanwhile, the coalition faces the challenge of turning the Afghan National Security Forces into a professional and cohesive fighting force.
“Some units have lived up to the hype and performed admirably, but there remain serious shortfalls in performance and retention that need to be addressed,” he said.
Part of the challenge is the high expectations of U.S. trainers, who demand performance from Afghan recruits that are probably unrealistic, he said.
“But the other challenge is the occasionally misleading reports of progress from [the NATO training mission]. Soldiers have complained for years that the training is not long enough or tailored closely enough to the needs of Afghan recruits to perform to the standards the U.S. demands. As a result, there is growing frustration about reality not meeting either expectations or public brags by the leadership,” he said.
Afghan forces have taken the lead in 40 percent of conventional operations, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve their capabilities in areas such as logistics and other specialized warfare.
Mr. Cordesman warned lawmakers that a realistic assessment of the Afghan security forces‘ capabilities is crucial as the Obama administration draws down U.S. troops.
“‘Spinning’ positive reports to the neglect of real problems at the strategic level is a recipe for defeat, regardless of how well the [Afghans] perform militarily,” he said.
• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.