The 2-year-old U.S. practice of mixing American and Afghan forces 24 hours a day has produced cultural clashes that have led to an increase of “green-on-blue” slayings of U.S. troops in which Afghan security personnel turn their weapons on their trainers, says an adviser to U.S. commanders and policymakers.
For years in Afghanistan, allied forces had practiced “mentoring”: U.S. officers would interact with Afghan commanders at higher levels and would train locals on bases. Afghan troops then went out and performed missions with a limited number of allied ground forces.
A new strategy took hold after the 2009 surge of U.S. troops. “Mentoring” was replaced by “partnering” — drawing U.S. and Afghan forces more closely together. Americans lived with and fought alongside Afghan security personnel, day in, day out — and the Western and Muslim cultures collided, said military analyst Stephen Biddle, a professor at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Studies.
“The cultures of the American military and the culture of the Afghan National Security Force [ANSF] are sufficiently at odds with each other that, in fact, they don’t work together very well at the grass-roots level,” said Mr. Biddle, who has worked in groups that helped shape the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy. “If anything, they are creating more friction and enmity between Americans and Afghans than they are creating cooperating improvement.”
After 45 green-on-blue insider attacks this year alone killed 51 international troops, the NATO command again is changing its approach, at least for now.
The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it has stopped training Afghan troops and working with them below the battalion level, saying the change will not affect the withdrawal of international combat forces from the country by the end of 2014.
The military maintains that only about 25 percent of insider killings are the result of direct infiltration by the Taliban. Most, it says, stem from cultural clashes or grievances, although the military concedes such disagreements can push an Afghan soldier to side with the enemy.
The NATO command Tuesday put a positive spin on the suspension of some joint patrols, mentioning the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” as a factor, just as the White House has cited the Internet clip for sparking violence in the Middle East and North Africa.
But the sharp rise in insider attacks began months before the video clip appeared, according to statistics released in Kabul in the past year.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF counterparts,” the command statement reads. “In some local instances, operational tempo has been reduced, or force protection has been increased. These actions balance the tension of the recent video with force protection, while maintaining the momentum of the campaign.”
Perhaps the loudest alarm bell for worsening relationships came last year, when Jeffrey Bordin, a behavior scientist working with troops in Afghanistan, produced a stark report on U.S.-Afghan partnering. The command authorized the study after an Afghan security officer killed six U.S. soldiers in what the Bordin report said was “one of the worse mass-murder incidents ever suffered by U.S. military forces.”
Titled “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” the report was the result of a series of focus groups involving Afghans and Americans.
“ANSF members identified numerous social, cultural and operational grievances they have with U.S. soldiers,” the study said. “They found many U.S. soldiers to be extremely arrogant, bullying, unwilling to listen to their advice and were often seen as lacking concern for civilian and ANSF safety during combat.”
U.S. soldiers’ complained about their Afghan allies: “They reported pervasive illicit drug use, massive thievery, personal instability, dishonesty, no integrity, incompetence, unsafe weapons handling, corrupt officers covert alliances/informal treaties with insurgents, high AWOL rates, bad morale, laziness, repulsive hygiene and the torture of dogs.”
The ‘partnering’ model
When then-Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he wrote a new strategy that included partnering, which methodically took hold the next year. The goal: To improve the lackluster performance of the Afghan army with hands-on role models.
Mr. Biddle explained the big change: “We moved from a model of mentoring to a model of partnering. What that language meant, we had been using relatively senior advisers working at relatively senior command echelons for the Afghan forces to help them become more proficient. So officers would work with Afghan officers to improve their planning procedures.
“But the troops in the field were mostly operating on their own. We decided that wasn’t producing change fast enough or in a sweeping enough way, so we went to a partnering model in which Afghan and American forces would live and eat together, train together and fight together.
“When Afghans went out on patrol, there would be Americans out with them at the platoon and squad level,” Mr. Biddle said.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday called the patrol suspension “prudent and temporary.”
“Let me be clear: We remain committed to our strategy, and we remain committed to our goal of seeing the Afghans fully in charge of their own security by the end of 2014,” he told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “The goal is unchanged, the strategy remains the same and the timeline remains the same.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said: “The president’s policy of gradually turning over security lead to Afghan forces continues. And that is part of a broader strategy that will result in more American troops coming home.”
Together or apart
But Mr. Biddle, who has long worked on Afghan war policy, saw the move as a significant step away from the McChrystal buddy system.
“If you think what green-on-blue is doing, that it is showing you a bigger problem, the way to deal with that problem is to de-conflict the two forces and get them out of everyday grass-roots contact with each other, which is what the order did,” he said.
It is the most significant step the command has taken this year to try to stop the green-on-blue killings. (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.)
Previously, the command had designed a system of “guardian angels” — armed U.S. troops who watch the Afghans as they train, fight and live with the Americans. The command now has ordered all U.S. troops to be armed at all times.
It also set up new screening and rescreening procedures done by joint U.S.-Afghan military, intelligence and medical officials. It has culled several hundred Afghan security personnel who previously had passed muster.
And NATO has stepped up sensitivity training of Western troops so they understand what can offend a Muslim.
John Pike, who directs GlobalSecurity.org, said separating troops is not the answer.
“The theory is that we are still there in order to train up the ANSF so they can remain an effective fighting force once we leave,” he said. “It is kind of hard for us to train them if our troops won’t go near them.
“So separating the troops makes no sense, but there is a lot about Afghanistan that makes no sense, so why not more nonsense? I think that as soon as the polls close in November, U.S. commanders will announce that we have seen unexpected success in Afghanistan, and we are accelerating our drawdown,” Mr. Pike said.