I actually had to read this article by Laura King of the L.A. Times twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the one piece of information I was looking for. To be sure, it’s good round-up on the rise of insider attacks, which has seen an unprecedented number of coalition service members being killed by their Afghan partners. It touches on a variety of aspects connected to this problem: the strategic impact of those attacks, what may compel Afghans to commit such heinous crimes, and of course it addresses current and future steps that may curb this trend.
Yet, the missing piece of the puzzle was nowhere to be found in this article. And it’s no small piece: Afghans and their security forces suffer from insider attacks as well.
The repercussions are similar compared to attacks on the coalition and its service members, yet differ in other aspects. Insider attacks undermine the institutional stability of the Afghan national security forces and exacerbate already existent problems within the armed forces. And even though press coverage is mostly focused on western casualties, dozens of Afghan policemen and soldiers have died at the hands of rogue colleagues too. And even though it’s not U.S. or another nation’s troops who are being murdered, it still matters.
Before I explain why, let me showcase some of those insider attacks, which occurred without involvement of the coalition. One doesn’t have to search long to find out that these attacks aren’t a new phenomenon.
Not a new trend: Afghan security forces turning on each other
Earlier this month, an Afghan policeman opened fire on his colleagues at a checkpoint in Nimroz province, killing ten. In March 2012, a member of the Afghan Local Police in Paktika province killed at least 9 fellow policemen in a particularly gruesome fashion :
The suspect in the killings, identified as Assadullah, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, had on Thursday night laced food being served at the post with crushed sleeping pills, said Dawlat Khan Zadran, the provincial police chief. He then waited a few hours for the drugs to take effect, and sometime after midnight turned his AK-47 assault rifle on his colleagues, Mr. Zadran said.
In July 2011, a similar attack took place in Helmand, where an Afghan Policeman poisoned and then shoots dead seven fellow officers. Another example from 2009 almost exactly mirrors the incident earlier this month, when an Afghan police officer shot dead six fellow officers at a checkpoint in Nimroz province. One insider attack dates back to 2006, when five Afghan policemen shot dead seven fellow officers as they slept, before defecting to the Taliban in Zabul province.
While the majority of those incidents seem to involve the Afghan National Police (ANP), insider attacks happen within the Afghan National Army (ANA) as well. The documentary “The Last Outpost“, provides an example. Shot at combat outpost Spera in Khost province in 2010, it chronicles the decent of one Afghan soldier into madness to the point when he ends up shooting two fellow soldiers, killing one of them.
The repercussions of insider attacks undermine the Afghan security forces
In most of the press coverage that focuses on insider attacks on coalition forces, one key aspect is mentioned repeatedly. It is the issue of mutual trust, or to be more precise, the lack of it. Partnering with Afghan security forces is a task that is fraught with a high level of insecurity, yet not being able to trust those partners adds another layer of uncertainty.
To a degree, this also applies to the Afghan security forces as well. In uncertain environments, trust between members of a group is essential. Within the Afghan security forces, conditions regarding this aspect aren’t favorable. Different ethnic, social, linguistic and even religious differences do not necessarily foster a climate of trust. A high level of corruption, payment issues, stress and combat fatigue, abysmal living conditions and insurgent threats to family members may contribute to a sense of common hardship. Yet psychologically, these effects put a huge strain on most individuals. Within this context, one dynamic that can be frequently observed within Afghan military or police units is that allegiances and loyalties revert to different peer or solidarity groups. Afghans even have a term for their complex concept of identity, which is called qawm. The bottom line is, all those factors make the establishment of mutual trust between Afghans a difficult task.
Other factors add to the high level of insecurity within the Afghan security forces. The rapid growth of the forces entailed poor vetting, haphazard security screenings and background checks, which opened the door to insurgent infiltration. As a reminder: The Afghan security forces grew from roughly 83,000 ANA and 80,000 ANP service members in March 2009 to about 194,000 ANA and 150,000 ANP respectively 1. While the coalition has repeatedly stated that the majority of insider attacks were committed by genuine members of the Afghan security forces, some attacks are attributed to apparent insurgent infiltration. Flawed vetting processes and inadequate background checks are just some of the costs associated with the extraordinary growth rates of the Afghan security forces.
Add to this perceived insults due to the behavior of coalition service members, inter-cultural misunderstandings, lack of education, religious indoctrination or psychological breakdowns and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.
This, together with the factors mentioned above has an effect on unit cohesion and morale, which in turn affects efforts at building and maintaining trust. Recent efforts designed to counter the threat of insider attacks are welcome and most of them make sense as well, but they come at a price: The measures make it clear to every Afghan policeman or soldier that the lack of trust isn’t limited to their coalition partners, but extends to their own chain of command. The Washington Post’s excellent Afghanistan correspondent Kevin Sieff has the story:
The Afghan measures include the deployment of dozens of undercover intelligence officers to Afghan security units nationwide, increased surveillance of phone calls between Afghan troops and their families, and a ban on cellphone use among new recruits to give them fewer opportunities to contact members of the insurgency, Afghan officials say.
Sieff quotes the Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, who explains the ramifications of those measures:
“Soldiers must feel that they are under the full surveillance of their leadership at all levels,” the Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, said in an interview after meeting with Dempsey and other U.S. commanders. “Initially, it will have a negative impact on morale, but we have to do something. We have to look seriously at every individual.”
Those steps come on top of another, highly controversial move by the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, which in February issued a decree that forced Afghan soldiers to relocate their families from the relative safety of Pakistan back to Afghanistan. The order has only been carried out on a case by case basis it seems, yet it further aggravates the anxiety and the level of distrust that permeates the Afghan security forces.
Countering insider attacks requires a joint effort
While insider attacks do not have the same strategic effect as in the western world and particularly in the U.S., they actively undermine morale, cohesion and trust within the Afghan security forces. And while trust doesn’t exclude the possibility of future insider attacks, it is vital for a stable partnership.
And this is why the issue matters. Afghans are suffering from insider attacks too, and it has a direct effect on the partnership with the coalition. To put it in layman’s terms: how can the Afghans be trusted if they don’t even know who to trust among their peers? It is unreasonable to expect this to change this anytime soon, despite recent positive steps taken by both sides.
The key is: This trend can only be countered jointly. Afghan and U.S. security officials have recognized this. Both need to step up their commitment to fight insider attacks; the measures announced these days are a step in the right direction. However, one can only hope that those measures bring the desired results and that side-effects don’t outweigh whatever gains in terms of stability may be made. Trust and confidence-building measure are important tools, but it will take time until these show any effect. In the meantime, the only thing that is left for both sides is to ‘partner on’. And keep an eye on each other.
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