The post-Koran-burning slayings in Afghanistan have put focus on one of the most pressing questions facing U.S. commanders: Why do Afghan troops suddenly turn their weapons on NATO personnel and kill them?
Six Army soldiers alone were killed by insiders — two in the Interior Ministry and four at bases in southern and eastern Afghanistan — after reports surfaced Feb. 20 that U.S. personnel burned Korans at the main base in Bagram.
There is not an official report on the killings. Speculation immediately centered on the Taliban or the Haqqani Network activating agents inside the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to commit murder.
But analysts, statistics and at least one study suggest that the explanation is not so simple.
In an impoverished, deeply Islamic nation at war for decades, amid a stark mix of Western and old-school Muslim values, disputes are bound to arise.
“The Taliban have been pretty consistent in messaging, calling for the Afghan security force, police and army to turn on their NATO counterparts,” said Paraag Shukla, a former Pentagon intelligence officer who is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“But the effect of some of this consistent messaging is really very, very difficult to measure because we don’t know the motives for these killings of [NATO] personnel. There’s not really a consistent pattern. They are sort of all over the map.”
‘Green on blue’
Pentagon statistics provided to The Washington Times paint a complex picture.
Before the Koran burning, there were 42 reported incidents of “green on blue,” as the Afghan troop betrayal is called, from 2007 to February of this year.
But the U.S. could confirm only four, or 9 percent, as the work of insurgent plants who sneaked through the U.S.-Afghan screening process.
Another four cases are classified as “co-option” — that is, an Afghan is threatened or bribed.
The majority, 26 incidents, stemmed from “personal matters” such as disputes among soldiers or grievances against the command.
The Pentagon has yet to come up with a sure-fire way to weed out malcontents before they resort to violence.
“Personal issues, combat stress and other factors, some of which we don’t fully understand in every individual case, often underlie these attacks,” David Sedney, assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, told the House Armed Services Committee last month.
“Combat stress that leads to use of violence by forces against their colleagues and their partners is something that is an unfortunate characteristic of war everywhere, and something that we must do everything we can to prevent in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
Last year, Jeffrey Bordin, a political and behavioral scientist, published a field study in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army. He conducted 68 focus groups made up of 613 Afghans to determine the reasons for the repeated occurrences of “personal clashes.”
He found deep mistrust among Americans and Afghans, and he warned of a “rapidly growing systemic threat.”
Seeds of discontent
“ANSF members identified numerous social, cultural and operational grievances they have with U.S. soldiers,” the study said.
The list of grievances: U.S. convoys running traffic signs, indiscriminate fire that killed civilians, use of flawed intelligence sources, violations of female privacy during searches, public urination and the unnecessary shooting of animals.
“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,” Mr. Bordin found.
U.S. soldiers had their own list of complaints about their Afghan comrades.
The study said: “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.”
Said John Pike, who directs GlobalSecurity.org: “I think the problem is that they understand us all too well, and that there is an unbridgeable cultural chasm. Americans are contemptuous of the Afghans’ primitive practices and beliefs, and the Afghans are contemptuous of the Americans’ infidel ways.”
The largest number of green on blue attacks have been in the past two years. Volume may explain the spike. During that time, the government and NATO greatly expanded the Afghan National Security Force to reach a goal of 352,000 by year’s end.
Adding tens of thousands of troops put great pressure on a screening process that relies significantly on the word of village elders to vouch for a person’s character.
“When you have a rapidly growing force like that, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor everyone,” Mr. Shukla said.
‘A thinking enemy’
A special-operations soldier who served in Afghanistan said low pay makes locals susceptible to bribes.
“We are growing an enormous army in Afghanistan,” said the officer. “That means recruits aren’t extensively vetted, and their limited pay makes them extremely susceptible to inducement by the enemy to kill NATO forces either from bribes or threats to their families.
“This isn’t about the Afghan national army being infiltrated. This is about the susceptibility of its forces to inducements.”
In 2009 congressional testimony, U.S. commanders said a Taliban soldier earns about $300 a month, more than twice the salary for an Afghan soldier whose pay has since been increased to stay competitive with that of the enemy.
Another factor, the special-operations officer said, is that the Afghan army is viewed suspiciously by the majority Pashtuns in the south. The army is now ethnically diverse and includes members of the old Northern Alliance who fought the Pashtun Taliban in the 1990s.
“The Taliban can target any ethnicity in the ranks, but the Pashtun would generally be easier,” the officer said.
The problem is not just screening recruits. It also is keeping an eye on police and soldiers to detect behavior that might tip off a green on blue attack.
A case study is the killing of two U.S. soldiers last March at Forward Operating Base Frontenac.
The Afghan attacker, a security guard, was fired in 2010 for making statements about killing Americans. His employer, Tundra Security, recommended that he not be rehired. But the information was not inserted into his file and the attacker was rehired the next year — by the same firm.
As a result, base commanders must screen all Afghan nationals who come on and off the base on at least a weekly basis. U.S. units assign “guardian angels” to keep watch over Afghans during missions. The government also is setting up a counterintelligence program to try to weed out disloyal troops.
“So this is a thinking enemy that we’re dealing with here, a cunning enemy who wants to hurt us. And every now and then the enemy’s going to have some success,” Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told Congress last month.
“So what we’re trying to do is eliminate as much as possible, reduce the possibility that that can happen, but we can’t eliminate it completely.”