Afghanistan: Green on Blue Attacks Are Only a Small Part of the Problem
September 4, 2012
During the last few weeks, coverage of the Afghan War has focused on “green on blue attacks”—the killings of U.S. and other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers by members of the Afghan security services. This is part of a natural tendency to ride the headlines, but the coverage has often been misleading, and it reflects a persistent failure to address the far broader range of problems emerging in the war and the needs for major changes in virtually every aspect of the way it is fought.
Putting Green on Blue Attacks in Perspective
First, green on blue killings need to be put in perspective. On the one hand, the numbers involved are still very limited. Green on blue deaths in August were only 15 out of 53, or 28 percent. Analysis also shows that the trend in total coalition deaths is falling: the total of 53 casualties for August 2012 is the highest in 2012, but is typical of the patterns during the campaign season and compares with 82 in 2011 and 79 in 2010.
On the other hand, their political impact is very significant. The Taliban and insurgents are fighting a political war to influence and dominate the Afghan people and to drive out U.S. and other ISAF forces, as well as aid efforts. The insurgents know that the actual numbers involved are not the issue; what counts is their political impact.
And this impact is having a major effect in influencing media coverage of the war, the U.S. Congress, the American public, and the attitudes of other ISAF and donor countries. Like other high-profile Taliban and insurgent attacks on Afghan officials, major targets in Kabul, and the pervasive insurgent effort to infiltrate and influence the Afghan countryside and cities, they are having a major impact on overall support for the war in what is a battle of political attrition.
They led Afghan president Hamid Karzai to first make absurd claims that “foreign intelligence” officers are responsible—creating a new and this time pointless set of tensions with Pakistan—and then to talk about investigating the causes, as if he had not initially blamed them on foreign intelligence agents.
These attacks also led to unconfirmed media reports that much of the existing vetting system had previously been ignored in the rush to expand Afghan forces. They then forced ISAF to temporarily suspend training for 1,000 Afghan local police (ALP) personnel (the ALP are currently being expanded from some 16,300 to 30,000) in the hope that more intense vetting methods would reduce the problem. At the same time, ISAF had to deal with the political impact of the fact that some 25,000 Afghan soldiers and more than 4,000 Afghan national policemen remained in training for a total force that is now over 350,000.
ISAF reacted to these political impacts of green on blue attacks by stating that reports of the suspension of recruiting for the 8,000 commandos and 3,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) Special Operations Forces in the recently inaugurated ANA Special Operations Division were incorrect, and the force continued with their normal operational activity. The vetting status of all commandos and Special Operations Forces was being checked but had no impact on current operations.
It stated that the measures being applied to ANA special forces and ALP personnel reflected the intensive effort to recheck the vetting status of the some 350,000 ANSF personnel as part of a number of actions recently instituted to reinforce existing precautions related to the insider threat. It stated that much of the re-vetting task had already been completed and individuals, where vetting status has been found to be in doubt, have been suspended pending further investigation or removed from the force.
ISAF further stated that,
The vetting status of all Commandos and Special Operations Forces is also being checked, but this again is having no impact on current operations. The measures being applied to ANA special forces and ALP personnel reflects the intensive effort to recheck the vetting status of the some 350,000 ANSF personnel as part of a number of actions recently instituted to reinforce existing precautions related to the insider threat. Much of this re-vetting task has already been completed and numbers of individuals, where vetting status has been found to be in doubt, have been suspended pending further investigation, or removed from the force.
The synergy between the Afghan government and military and the coalition has already resulted in several concrete measures to defeat the insider threat. Among the new initiatives being implemented are improvements to the vetting process for new recruits; increased numbers of counterintelligence teams; introduction of interview procedures for ANA soldiers returning from leave; a new warning and reporting system for insider threats; enhanced intelligence exchange between the ANSF and ISAF; establishment of an anonymous reporting system; improved training for counterintelligence agents; establishment of a joint investigation commission when insider threats occur; and enhanced cultural training to include visits to coalition home training centers by Afghan Cultural and Religious Affairs advisers, which were authorized by President Karzai this morning.
It is unclear how such measures will affect green on blue attacks in the future, and how such efforts and the political impact of future attacks will play out over time, but it is clear that they already have had a major impact on media reporting and public perceptions in ISAF countries.
They make it more and more tempting for Afghans to distance themselves from the Afghan government, and they breed distrust between Afghans and U.S./ISAF trainers and forces. They make it more tempting for ISAF and donor countries to rush for the exits.
Green on Blue Attacks as a “Symptom” of the Much Broader Political Character of the War
What is even more important is that the green on blue attacks are only a symptom of the fact that both the current patterns in the fighting, and the overall transition effort have become part of a much broader political war of attrition and of the much broader and grimmer aspect of the war. ISAF and ANSF may still be winning tactically, but green on blue and other politically oriented strikes on both foreign and Afghan targets may be giving the insurgents back the overall momentum in the war.
Simply focusing on green on blue killings does not even put the problems in this one aspect of the war in context. A detailed examination of unclassified casualty reporting shows that the official statistics and media coverage of such incidents has been very limited and makes it impossible to put the overall problems in green on blue tensions and transition in perspective. ISAF makes a major and hopelessly undefined distinction between killings due to the Taliban/infiltration and killings due to personal disputes and other reasons.
So far, however, the United States and ISAF don’t seem to be able to agree on how to define this or to provide any meaningful data on the overall nature of the problem—a fact largely ignored by what might politely be described as an analytically illiterate media. ISAF and the United States can’t decide on whether the Taliban and other insurgents account for 10 percent or 25 percent of the direct green on blue kills. Worse, they provide no data on the overall problem that must include a count of green on blue—and blue on green—attempts, woundings, and incidents.
There is no real reporting on green on green attacks, where there are no numbers at all. There are no data on the background of attackers to show how other attackers may have been influenced by extremist propaganda and how many have been encouraged by insurgents on a target-of-opportunity basis or inserted as infiltrators. There has been no supporting public analyses of insurgent tactics to show when they began to focus on such attacks.
Moreover, there has been little official effort to explain that there are good reasons for noninsurgent-backed green on blue incidents to increase as well. The entire ANSF force-building effort is under stress and forced to recruit lower-quality personnel, men with less-known backgrounds, men motivated only by the desire for employment and money, and men from areas where their culture is more traditional and less adaptable to encounters with U.S. and ISAF personnel.
Rushing to create a buildup in ANSF with less and less qualified recruits who are put under immediate pressure does create tensions, as do constant U.S. and ISAF withdrawals, rotations of personnel and trainers, base closings and realignments, efforts to transfer areas to inexperienced Afghan forces, problems in providing ANSF forces with adequate leave and recovery time, all of which interact with other sources of turbulence in ANSF manpower.
Yet, the numbers of recent attacks remain small relative to the other patterns of casualties and violence in the war, and it unclear how much of a surge in such attacks there has really been. One doesn’t have to be much of a mathematician to see there has been a limited correlation between recent increases in force size and the number of killings per se. Similar increases did not occur in the past when more rapid increases, higher turnover, and less leave and recovery time affected past buildup periods in ANSF.
It also is hard to make any meaningful comparisons with Vietnam and Iraq. There were some comparable problems, but green on blue attacks were then treated largely as infiltrators, and relations between U.S. and host country forces were usually better since the cultural differences were smaller and the recruiting base was better educated. Vietnam already had forces, and both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Iraqi officers and noncommissioned officers were more experienced.
On the one hand, this means that green on blue attacks may decline as ANSF units mature and as they shake out problem recruits and malcontents. Similarly, they may decline as the training and partnering role puts the Afghans steadily more in charge and reduces U.S. and ISAF “visibility” and the sources of clashes between Afghans and outside forces.
Better vetting and delays in further recruiting of Afghan special forces and local police may help, but there are few reliable records: far too much depends on tribal and local leaders who care more about their power base; polygraphs are a nightmare of unreliability; infiltrators can be better trained and given better covers; and vetting will not affect people who become hostile after they enter the force. Tighter vetting and security measures also breed distrust and separation of forces and cause problems on their own. They will present growing problems as trainers and partners have to be more deeply involved with ANSF as ISAF forces decline.
On the other hand, if the insurgents organize properly and step up infiltration and efforts to convert men already in ANSF, the end result could be a lethal combination of new pressures as more and more troops withdraw, ANSF and Afghan faith in U.S. and allied staying power declines, and trainers and mentors become more exposed and isolated. As coalition troops withdrawal, ISAF trainers will become more and more exposed, ANSF troops will become more independent, and Afghanistan’s continuing ethnic and sectarian tensions will be less constrained. These factors could combine to keep green on blue (and green on green) violence levels as high as they were for much of Afghanistan’s modern history.
The Broader Strategic Context and the Need for Major Changes in Strategy and the Conduct of the War
The most important message of green on blue attacks, however, is not this one set of problems but that they are part of a broader mix of insurgent efforts to win the war in political terms as U.S. and allied forces largely withdraw. These attacks may be the current media focus, but there is a critical need for a much broader perspective and examination of what may well be tactical victories at the cost of creeping strategic defeat.
In the narrow case of green on blue tensions and attacks, vetting and better partnering measures may help to some as yet unknown degree if handled well, but they are not an answer to the political impact of such attacks or the overall pattern of insurgent political warfare. This is discussed in detail in the paper on strategy and the course of the war referenced at the end of this Commentary, and it is highlighted by the stark contrast between UN reporting on the course of the insurgency in the second report on the overall patterns in casualties in the war, and the U.S. and ISAF military focus on numbers killed, enemy initiated attacks, and the kinetic patterns in tactical encounters.
Dealing with the mix of insurgent political attacks requires educating political leaders, media, and the public that enemies will exploit every vulnerability in asymmetric warfare; acceptance of the price in terms of casualties is part of the price of continuing the struggle.
This will be an ongoing duel—along with every other aspect of a “war of transition” that will be fought on political far more than tactical terms. It will also be a duel where the broader failures in the current U.S. approach to both the military and civil aspects of transition—coupled with shifts in the overall struggle against a global terrorist threat, inability to push Pakistan to halt support and sanctuary for Afghan insurgents, and the gross weakness in Afghan politics and governance—add to the risk of defeat.
The detailed trends in overall casualties in the war and a summary of recent UN estimates of politico-military trends in the war are provided in new Burke report entitled Coalition, ANSF, and Civilian Casualties in the Afghan Conflict: From 2001 through August 2012. This is available on the CSIS website at https://csis.org/files/publication/120904_Afghan_Iraq_Casulaties.pdf.
Also, a broad assessment of the real-world trends in the war is available in a Burke Chair report entitled Avoiding Creeping Defeat in Afghanistan: The Need for Realistic Assumptions, Strategy, and Plans. This is available on the CSIS website at
Other Burke Chair reports addressing the strategic context of the Afghan conflict can be found on the CSIS website and include:
- Creating the New Plans and Assessment Systems Needed for the Afghan Security Forces and a Successful Transition, http://csis.org/publication/creating-new-plans-and-assessment-systems-needed-afghan-security-forces-and-successful-t;
- Afghanistan: The Failing Economics of Transition, http://csis.org/publication/afghanistan-failing-economics-transition; and
- Afghanistan and the Tokyo Conference: Hope, Fantasy, and Failure, http://csis.org/publication/afghanistan-and-tokyo-conference-hope-fantasy-and-failure.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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