The U.S. military command in Afghanistan is hoping that intrusive scrutiny of applicants for the country's security forces will curb a streak of insider attacks that have killed a dozen U.S. service members last month alone.
The command notes with alarm the number of assaults that appear to be the work of Taliban infiltrators, an indication that the enemy is relying on insider attacks as much as it does roadside bombs to attack NATO forces.
As of the end of August, 34 insider attacks resulting in 45 American deaths had been reported this year. That was nearly double the number of attacks for the same period last year, when 28 U.S. service members were killed.
"More must be done to identify and flush out the threats," James Graybeal, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, told The Washington Times. "There is no quick fix. What we must do, we and the Afghans together, is to strengthen and augment our protective measures. While they are individually insufficient, we believe they will collectively reduce the threat."
The insider attacks have hampered efforts to train Afghans to take charge of securing their country as the international coalition prepares to withdraw by the end of 2014.
Army Green Berets have suspended training the Afghan Local Police, a sort of village militia totaling 16,000, as it reviews its vetting process. The Afghan police recruits typically are recommended by village elders.
But that rudimentary screening has proved to be inadequate. On Aug. 17, a newly trained local policeman fatally shot two of his U.S. trainers after he was handed the weapon at a graduation ceremony.
The pause in training was first reported by The Washington Post.
A U.S. government source told The Times that a persistent, years-old problem in the war effort has been the lack of intelligence databases that could show that some applicants for the Afghan National Army, the national police and local police are linked to insurgents.
The Times has published of series of reports about efforts by some Marine Corps and Army intelligence officers to buy an off-the-shelf analytical software system called Palantir.
Some say the standard-issue intelligence processor, the Army's Distributed Common Ground System, is too cumbersome. An Army operational test last spring concluded that the system has "significant limitations" and is not reliable.
The former top intelligence officer in Afghanistan wrote in a 2010 memo that the command lacked a pool of data that could be cross-checked for undesirables.
"The enemy is able to take advantage of his ability to hide in plain sight in the population because we have been unable to fully exploit the information/intelligence we already have," wrote Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who now directs the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.
In this case, "hide in plain sight" means the Taliban have been able to place their loyalists inside the Afghan security apparatus.
"If I were to suggest anything, it would be that the Afghans themselves need to better vet their recruits and those in their ranks," said Bart Bechtel, a former CIA operations officer. "They need a strong counterintelligence service.
"Unfortunately, they probably distrust our guys more than any of their countrymen," he said. "The Afghans historically sway with the winds. Loyalty goes to who pays the best and who belongs to their tribe or clan."
The military provided The Times with a list of steps being taken to make force protection, and counterintelligence, more thorough:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered that national army recruits be interviewed by a four-member council represented by the Defense and Interior ministries, the National Directorate for Security and medical specialists.
The security force has banned the sale of uniforms to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Taliban.
Afghan security officials have set up an anonymous hotline for complaints similar to what the U.S. armed forces use with a system of inspectors general.
Afghan soldiers who return from leave must go through the vetting process again.
The Defense Ministry has arrested more than 100 soldiers for carrying false ID cards, as well as an unspecified number suspected of having ties to the Taliban.
The ministry also is looking at establishing counterintelligence chiefs at the brigade level and distributing more lie detectors.
The command previously authorized U.S. personnel to be armed at all times and assigned in-unit bodyguards to keep an eye on the Afghans among American troops.
"All coalition forces personnel are at a heightened state of alert and adopting mandated force protection measures," said Mr. Graybeal, the NATO spokesman.
At an Aug. 23 news conference, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said about 25 percent of insider attacks are carried out by infiltrators, an increase from an earlier Pentagon estimate of 10 percent.
The military continues to believe that most attacks are rooted in battle stress and disagreements between Afghan trainees and U.S. fighters.
Said Gen. Allen: "The daily pressures that are on some of these troops the nature of our operational tempo, remembering that Afghan troops have gone to the field and they have stayed in the field -- and they've been in combat now for years -- we believe that combination of many of these particular factors may have come together during the last several weeks to generate the larger numbers."
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