'Guardian Angels' Still Defending Against Insider Attacks in Afghanistan

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Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team provide security as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands after a key leader engagement in Southeastern Afghanistan. The 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Casey Nelsen)
Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team provide security as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands after a key leader engagement in Southeastern Afghanistan. The 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Casey Nelsen)

A beat cop's street sense proved to be a major factor in meeting the ongoing threat of insider attacks on a recent Army National Guard unit’s deployment to Afghanistan, the commander said Wednesday.

"One of the civilian skill sets that was greatly beneficial in selecting soldiers for Guardian Angels was the fact that we have so many law enforcement officers within our formation," said Col. Matthew Smith, commander of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) of the Georgia Guard.

About one-third of the IBCT's soldiers "are involved in law enforcement in some way, shape or fashion" in their civilian jobs, Smith said at a roundtable session with reporters at the Pentagon on the IBCT's deployment, from December 2018 to September 2019.

"They're trained in how to read people," said Smith, who was joined by officers and top enlisted personnel at the session. "A lot of the Guardian Angel mission is to anticipate an opportunity for attack."

Related: Army IDs Warrant Officers Killed in Afghanistan Helicopter Crash

The discussions gave insight into the adaptability of the U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan and the evolving nature of the missions assigned to the U.S. troop presence. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said last month that presence would continue for at least the next several years.

Smith said he couldn't put a number on how many insider, or "green on blue," attacks were prevented by the Guardian Angels assigned to watch over other U.S. troops on train, advise and assist missions, and in Special Forces operations.

"You can't prove a negative," he said, but "periodically, over the course of the deployment, we received intelligence indications that certain efforts we were making were effective."

Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Nigro, who led a platoon of 48th IBCT soldiers trained as Guardian Angels, said he and others read the book "Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life" on identifying threats to prepare for the mission.

From the book, and from training exercises, the platoon "developed scenarios that allowed us to anticipate things and to be ready to react," he said.

For the first six months of the deployment, "nothing happened," Nigro said of the Guardian Angel assignment. But then in July, "there was one incident where we were engaged by an insider" who targeted a highly successful Afghan National Security Defense Force commander in contested Ghazni province.Col. Abdul Mobin Mutjaba, a brigade commander, had led assaults that drove the Taliban from the Khwaja Umari district of east central Grahzni, which had been held by the Taliban for the previous nine months, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said.

Mujtaba told The New York Times of the assault, "The fighting didn't last longer than 30 minutes. It was all ground forces, no air power."

The insider attack by one or two participants killed Mujtaba, but Nigro's team quickly eliminated the threat, Smith said. He did not further describe the incident but said of the attackers: "They are no longer with us."

A later mission to clear a district in the province was dubbed "Operation Mobin" in the colonel's honor, the Ministry of Defense said.

Insider attacks against U.S. and allied forces peaked in 2012 when a total of 44 attacks killed 61 U.S. and coalition troops, according to the Defense Department. But the threat remains as the Taliban increasingly targets top commanders.

In October 2018, Army Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was present at a meeting of regional leaders in Kandahar at which an insider attack killed Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Razik and wounded two U.S. soldiers.

The insider attack mission was one of a number of assignments for the 48th IBCT during its deployment at 36 locations across Afghanistan, Smith said at the roundtable session.

The main effort was in attached infantry support for Special Operations Task Forces, but other mission sets included support for NATO commands in eastern and southeastern sectors; backup for train, advise and assist missions; indirect fire support for numerous units; and static and mobile security operations -- "otherwise known as pulling guard duty," Smith said.

In the two-year training cycle leading up to the deployment, the 48th IBCT worked in an "associated" arrangement with the 3rd Infantry Division, said Lt. Col. Matt Makaryk, who led the associated partnership for the 48th IBCT.

Smith and others from the IBCT said the deployment to Afghanistan differed greatly from the three previous brigade deployments to combat zones since 9/11. The brigade deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006 and to Afghanistan in 2009-2010, and sent a headquarters element to Afghanistan in 2014.

Lt. Col. Matt Johnston, the brigade's operations officer, said the major difference from the 2009-2010 deployment, when the U.S. took the lead in combat operations, was that "the Afghans are in the lead now."

"They're planning their own operations, coming with their own timelines, their own maneuver," he said. The 48th IBCT assisted "when they asked."

The latest deployment for the 48th IBCT coincided with one of the worst periods in recent years for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to a report for the period from July through September released Wednesday by the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General.

NATO's Resolute Support mission reported 4,009 civilian casualties during the quarter, an increase of 130 percent compared to the previous quarter and 60 percent compared to the same quarter one year ago, the IG's report said.

The 48th IBCT's deployment also coincided with the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Taliban and President Donald Trump's cancellation of a planned round of negotiations with Taliban representatives at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

The 48th IBCT began deploying 2,100 troops to Afghanistan in December 2018, and about 1,600 came home in July, with the rest returning in September, Smith said.

During the deployment, his soldiers earned 544 combat infantry and combat action badges, eight Army Commendation Medals for valor and 14 Purple Hearts, he said.

Of the 14 Purple Hearts, five were from gunshot wounds and nine others were from shrapnel or concussive effects of explosions, Smith said. Four of the Purple Heart recipients were evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, for treatment; the others returned to duty, he added.

The one fatality during the unit's deployment was that of Spc. Miguel L. Holmes, 22, of Hinesville, Georgia, who died of injuries from a non-combat incident in May in eastern Nangarhar province.

Smith praised the design and quality of the troops' gear for limiting casualties.

"One guy got hit in the helmet. It functioned as designed. One guy got hit in the chest plate," and it also "functioned as designed," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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