Despite the wave of concern over “insider attacks” in Afghanistan, commanders and military experts believe the latest troubled chapter in the war will soon take care of itself.
The recent spike in “green-on-blue” or insider attacks by supposed Afghan allies on U.S. and coalition troops has killed 12 U.S. troops in recent weeks and a total of 42 U.S. and allied troops this year.
At least 109 U.S. and coalition troops have been killed in similar attacks since 2007. The incidents have further eroded U.S. support for an 11-year-old war that polls show most Americans no longer support.
However, seasoned experts in warfare maintain that such attacks, as terrible as they are, have had little impact on the overall mission to prepare Afghan forces to take over security by 2014.
“While the number of incidents have increased and while they have spiked for this year, the fact of the matter is those numbers are small by comparison to the thousands and thousands of [U.S. and Afghan] small-unit operations that are being conducted every single day in Afghanistan,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former U.S. Army vice chief of staff.
During his 37-year Army career, Keane served as a platoon leader and company commander in the Vietnam War and had units in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Since his retirement in 2003, he has served as a mentor to many senior commanders and was one of the architects of the Iraq troop surge in 2007.
Keane doesn’t discount the seriousness of the threat that insider attacks pose on troops but pointed out that the casualty totals caused by these attacks are small by comparison to the number caused by improvised explosive devices.
“This does not impact our soldiers to the degree that one would assume; I can attest to that from personal experience on a number of assessments I have done in Afghanistan,” said Keane, who currently is the chairman of the board for the Institute for the Study of War.
Keane also made it clear that he knows that the fellow soldiers of the victims of these attacks suffer emotionally and psychologically.
“I am not suggesting for a minute that it does not have an impact on them; it does,” he said. “But in terms of the overall impact on the force, I have seen no proof of that."
Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, insisted that U.S. troop morale remained high despite the attacks by Afghans they’ve tried to mentor, in a recent video briefing to the Pentagon from Kabul. He mapped out a stay-the-course strategy through the withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces in 2014.
Taliban infiltrators in the ranks of the Afghan security forces are believed responsible for about 25 percent of the green-on-blue attacks by Afghans on U.S. and coalition troops, Allen said. But U.S. military leaders have struggled to explain the recent spike in incidents.
The mantra for the Pentagon and the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul has been that the vast majority of the attacks could be blamed on personal grudges against the U.S. and NATO trainers, and the emotional problems of the Afghan police and soldiers.
But Allen said “the reasons for these attacks are very complex” and he indicated that battle fatigue combined with the fasting by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan may have been factors in the recent increase of green-on-blue incidents.
Such attacks may also be drawing more attention now since similar attacks did not occur regularly during the war in Iraq between coalition and Iraqi security forces.
Whatever the cause may be, Keane said that most soldiers and Marines view it as another reality of war in Afghanistan.
“The way the troops look at is, these incidents are another form of the same war that you have to deal with day in and day out where the enemy is always somewhat invisible,” Keane said. “But for the overwhelming majority of the other soldiers who have never experienced this kind of incident, their reality is side-by-side operations every single day with Afghan troops and the focus is on the enemy.”
Allen said he saw no need to reduce the amount of contact troops have with Afghans during the withdrawal stage, echoing President Obama’s recent call for maintaining a “close partnership” with the Afghan police and army.
But Allen has ordered changes to force-protection practices, such as a new requirement that U.S. troops carry weapons with magazines inserted at all times to guard against insider attacks. This is a dramatic shift in policy, since U.S. troops have always been required to keep their weapons unloaded at all times on forward operating bases as a way of reducing negligent discharges.
Keane agreed with the increased security measure.
“I have always had a tremendous amount of trust in our soldiers -- their discipline and training is the best,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with them having a magazine in their weapon on a military base. If that gives them a little quicker reaction to deal with a surprise situation … I think that is acceptable.”
What’s gone unnoticed in many of these incidents, officials maintain, is that Afghan forces have suffered greater casualties than their coalition partners.
“The green-on-green incidents are three to one versus green-on-blue,” Keane maintains. “The Afghans have the problem themselves, so there is empathy there for what is actually happening. They are very, very frustrated themselves with their own vetting process that is permitting these incidents.
“I’m not certain we will ever solve the problem of Taliban infiltration or disgruntled or self-radicalized Afghan soldiers who have not been detected. But eventually it will go down because we are transitioning the operational lead to Afghan forces, and there will be less and less operations with U.S. forces. It’s really going to take care of itself.”