[One of the keys to getting out of Afghanistan in a reasonable manner, is understanding “who is who” in Afghanistan, being able to tell in the field whether any individual Afghan is friend or foe, or merely misunderstood. Is the guy carrying the Kalishnikov a Taliban, or just a poor Pashtun needing a job? Is the “Taliban” really a Taliban, or is he a man seeking revenge for a murdered relative, or an Afghan patriot who believes that he is repelling invaders? Understanding the motivation of the man whose speech you cannot understand might prevent confrontations with the wrong people, or killing men who are NOT terrorists. If this is a war against “terror,” then identifying terrorists must be a primary consideration in the struggle to bring order to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Misunderstandings generate much of the unnecessary resistance to the mission to eliminate terrorism. Clarification of the players, must be accompanied by clarification of the American mission. If misunderstandings are to be kept to a minimum, then clarification of America’s real intent is perhaps the most vital element of a workable solution. If Americans expect Afghans to reveal their own loyalties, then it is also time for America to come clean in its “Af/Pak” game, as well.]
- By David Axe
He was the last person anyone expected to betray them. “Crazy Joe” was an Afghan cop — and a good one, his U.S. comrades believed. That is, until a day in October 2009, in Wardak province south of Kabul. A group of U.S. Army soldiers assigned to work alongside the Afghan police had just sat down to lunch when Crazy Joe opened fire.
“It dawns on me very quickly that he’s not shooting past them. He’s shooting at them,” Army Capt. Tyler Kurth told reporter Jessica Stone.
Two Americans died that day, adding to a growing list of U.S. and NATO troops killed by their ostensible Afghan allies. One of the worst such incidents happened in April, when an Afghan pilot trainee shot and killed eight U.S. Air Force advisors and a contractor in Kabul. Since 2009, 57 coalition troops have died and 64 have been wounded by rogue Afghan security forces. Half the casualties occurred in just the first five months of this year.
In many cases, the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying its fighters infiltrated Afghan forces with the intention of killing coalition troops. Now the U.S. is deploying 80 counter-intelligence agents to Afghanistan in an effort to prevent Taliban infiltration. The agents “will enhance the vetting of recruits, review profiles of soldiers who are being trained and generally tighten up the procedures to identify individuals who might be vulnerable to extremists’ appeals,” The New York Times reported.
With the withdrawal of U.S. forces slated to begin next month, it should go without saying that loyal and effective Afghan security forces are a top coalition priority.
But it’s not at all clear that Taliban infiltration of Afghan forces is the biggest problem, or nearly as extensive as the extremist group claims. Just because the Taliban took credit for an attack, doesn’t mean the rogue Afghan shooter was motivated by the extremists’ cause or had any connection to them at all.
Ahmad Gul, the 50-year-old pilot who killed nine Americans in April, was apparently angry following an argument, possibly over pay. Afghan military spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Gul was not an insurgent.
The Times pointed out that most killings by Afghan troops “stem from disagreements and arguments.”
“These incidents are exacerbated by austere battlefield conditions, combat stress, fatigue and cultural misunderstandings,” Lt. Col. David Simons, a spokesman for NATO’s training mission, told the paper.
And many of the incidents attributed to Taliban sympathizers inside the Afghan security forces were actually perpetrated by insurgents, with no formal ties to the Afghan military, wearing illegally-acquired uniforms as disguises. These attackers pose a very different problem than actual rogue Afghan troops, as they cannot normally penetrate a base or unit as deeply as a turned Afghan soldier might.
A little perspective is useful. While even one “friendly-fire” incident is too many, genuine Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces has accounted for fewer than 60 coalition deaths, in a war that has killed more than 2,500 NATO and non-Afghan allied troops plus at least 8,000 Afghan troops. It’s likely that NATO air strikes have accidentally killed far more Afghan troops than Afghan troops have deliberately killed NATO servicemembers.
Not to mention, counting army, air force, police, border guards and militia, there are around 500,000 Afghan troops. I’d guess at least 499,900 have zero interest in supporting the Taliban.
Incompetent and corrupt native troops probably pose a greater risk to Afghanistan’s security than Taliban infiltrators do. In my four embeds with NATO forces in Afghanistan since 2007, not once have I witnessed the kind of mistrust between Afghan troops and their NATO allies that would result from truly widespread Taliban infiltration.
Instead, the greatest tension between NATO and Afghan soldiers was over the Afghans’ tendency to mishandle their weapons and shoot wildly at the slightest provocation. In Bermel district in April, green Afghan soldiers wielding a faulty rocket launcher came close to incinerating a group of U.S. Army paratroopers. Earlier, the same paratroopers survived a massive, late-night Taliban assault only to take fire from jumpy Afghan guards shooting indiscriminately into the darkness.
And while the April murder of nine U.S. trainers could slow the development of the Kabul wing of the Afghan air force, the wing’s own corruption is arguably as serious a threat to the organization. U.S. Air Force trainers with the Kandahar wing — the other half of the Afghan air force — told me that Afghan aviators spend a lot of their time flying personal errands for senior officers or smuggling contraband.
That said, the Taliban has occasionally infiltrated the Afghan military or turned existing servicemembers to the extremist cause. Crazy Joe, for one, escaped the scene of the 2009 shooting. Survivors of the attack believe the turned cop went into hiding, with the Taliban’s help.
Expanded U.S. counter-intelligence could mean better vetting of Afghan forces and fewer killings by rogue troopers like Crazy Joe. But adding 80 counter-intel agents probably means the force assigned to identifying Taliban infiltrators greatly outnumbers the infiltrators themselves.
Update 2:52 pm EDT: As one military intelligence veteran notes, this post makes it sounds like the 80 new counter-intel agents are the first folks in Afghanistan that’ll do this screening work. Between the Army, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, Navy NCIS, the State Department, and, um “other government agencies,” that’s probably not the case.
Photo: David Axe