Afghan security personnel attacks against U.S. and NATO troops rose sharply last year despite a NATO command overhaul of how local army and police recruits are screened.
NATO received 47 so-called insider attacks in 2012, more than double the 20 assaults in 2011, according to official figures provided to The Washington Times. Last year’s attacks killed 61 NATO troops, mostly Americans.
Command spokesmen in Kabul, Afghanistan, declined to offer an explanation. But there is hope that a stricter accession process and the arrests of hundreds of Afghan security forces with ties to insurgents will take hold.
Only one insider attack has resulted in a single fatality during the first two months of this year, representing either a lull or a trend as the Taliban readies to begin its “fighting season” this spring. In addition, as NATO troops withdraw from the country, there will be fewer international targets for extremists to hit.
The 2012 figures for overall attacks are under command scrutiny. NATO first reported that “enemy-initiated attacks” were down 7 percent last year compared with 2011, a sign that the troop surge of 2010 was working. It later took the numbers off its website for recalculation after discovering a database error and concluding that there was actually no decrease in violence.
Analysts said the Taliban belatedly discovered 10 years into the war that the tactic of killing from inside the international coalition creates dissension in the ranks and provides opportunities to convince villagers that there are strong anti-Western sentiments inside the Afghan National Security Force.
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“They know we are handing the battle to the Afghan army and Afghan National Police,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and analyst at the Family Research Council. “We are winding down our forces and no longer have the stomach for the fight. Also, Afghans see the end of our involvement and are beginning to take sides, mostly the other side.”
Adaptation and innovation
President Obama announced last month that the U.S. is pulling 34,000 troops from Afghanistan this year. Most of the 30,000-plus remaining forces will follow in 2014, leaving a residual cadre to conduct training and counterterrorism missions.
An active-duty Army officer who fought in Afghanistan and studies the enemy told The Times that the Taliban was slow to innovate tactics until they discovered that the battlefield benefits of what NATO used to call “green-on-blue” attacks.
The Taliban learned about improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from al Qaeda, Iran and pro-Taliban officials inside the Pakistani government. But as NATO adapted with better intelligence and technologies, and more heavily armored vehicles, the IED, while still deadly, became less effective.
“By the time they thoroughly operationalized the use of IEDs, the U.S. military had mitigated the worst dangers,” the officer said. “Insider attacks were the most effective innovation in tactics employed by the Taliban over the course of the entire war.”
The Taliban’s focus on finding traitors to turn their guns on their NATO trainers victimized the coalition at a vulnerable time.
“The coalition efforts to rapidly build a large Afghan army made it difficult to thoroughly vet recruits,” the Army officer said. “This made it easy for the Taliban to either infiltrate the ranks or pay off recruits to conduct insider attacks. The coalition was particularly slow to react to insider attacks, only belatedly mitigating the vulnerabilities.”
The Pentagon’s last extensive progress report on the war was issued in December, tracking insider attacks through September. There were 10 more attacks the last three months of the year, bringing the total to 47.
The progress report offered three main scenarios for locals turning on allies: a Taliban plant able to sneak through the screening process; a soldier or policeman who succumbs to outside influence, what the command calls “co-option”; and an Afghan who becomes personally offended by or disgruntled with Western troops.
“The rise in insider attacks has the potential to adversely affect the Coalition’s political landscape,” the Pentagon said. “While small in number, insider attacks have the potential to significantly disrupt the Coalition mission in Afghanistan.”
Eight-step vetting process
Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s fugitive leader who escaped the U.S. invasion in 2001, knows the growing importance of turncoats, military officials say.
“The Taliban has adapted its propaganda, hoping to inspire attacks through themes of praise, revenge, and provision of support and sanctuary,” the Pentagon said. “For example, in Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar’s August 2012 Eid al-Fitr address, he praised [Afghan National Security Force] members who conduct insider attacks and urged other ANSF to do as ‘your brave friends have done.’”
Late last year, the command set up the Insider Threat Mitigation Team, an oversight group of Afghan and NATO leaders whose mission is to drive the bureaucracy to do better screening and monitoring to weed out traitors.
Afghan recruits now are subjected to an eight-step vetting process that includes tribal elders vouching for an applicant, criminal background checks, medical screening and drug tests.
An Afghan soldier now is trained specifically on the cultural differences between Muslim-dominated Afghanistan and Western countries such as the United States.
Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said at a Pentagon news conference in January that defeating homicidal insiders is now part of the overall campaign plan.
“I’m sure you’re very aware of the vetting and the counterintelligence efforts that are ongoing there, to beat back that threat,” Gen. Terry said. “We’re constantly aware there.”
Still, observers do not expect the Taliban to give up on insider attacks as they have lost territory to the allies during the past two years. The Taliban could shift more toward directing insiders to kill fellow Afghans who are taking the lead in counterterrorism missions.
“It is a cheap and effective technique that attracts media coverage so the Taliban will continue to make it a major focus of their tactics in the coming years,” the Army officer told The Times.