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Taliban infiltrators in Afghanistan? Pentagon warns of 'insider threat.'

Attacks by Afghan police and soldiers against US troops have caused friction and raised the threat that Taliban sympathizers could be joining the Afghan Army to attack or undermine NATO. 

Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS/Files
Afghan National Army noncommissioned officer recruits march during a parade to mark a graduation ceremony at the Turkish-run Camp Ghazi in Kabul last year.

The steady string of attacks against Western troops by rogue Afghan police and soldiers is not only undermining military cooperation at a crucial juncture but also raising the question of whether there is a growing threat of Taliban infiltration within US-trained Afghan units. 

So far, the majority of the attacks appear to be a tragic result of “simple insults,” combat stress, cultural misunderstanding, and “religious and ideological frictions,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, director of the Pentagon’s Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell, at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

But the killings create “distrust between our forces and and their Afghan counterparts” just as NATO forces are hoping to gain greater confidence in Afghan forces' ability to remain cohesive and effective. NATO forces could be ending their combat mission by next year, Defense Secretary Panetta said Wednesday.

New Pentagon statistics that show that there have been 42 attacks on US and NATO troops by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) since 2007. These attacks have resulted in the death of 70 coalition troops and the wounding of 110 others.

Pentagon officials warn of the potential “insider threat” from Taliban infiltrators, who are particularly difficult to detect. “A successful infiltrator is more likely [to be] competent and experienced,” warned Pentagon testimony submitted to the committee.

As a result, Taliban insurgents impersonating Afghan security forces may inadvertently be given important jobs within their unit. This, in turn, may allow them to facilitate “insurgent efforts by providing intelligence on coalition force tactics or movement, or by targeting high-profile ANSF or Afghan government officials.”  

They may also attack unsuspecting US troops. 

Pentagon officials vowed to step up biometric and “random” screenings of Afghan troops and contractors who work on US bases. They said in the future they would request two letters of recommendation from village elders, criminal records checks, drug tests, and a scan of insurgent “watch lists” of future hires.

One lawmaker suggested that perhaps more use should be made of polygraph tests. On this point, US military officials demurred. Unwieldy lie-detecting machines are “rarely used for this type of thing,” General Townsend explained. “It’s complex and just hard to do on a large scale.”

One of the most effective means of tackling the problem, Townsend said, will involve simply “reducing unnecessary frictions with our [Afghan] partners.”

This also involves being aware of the effects of combat stress combined with “cultural misunderstanding” or, say “a lack of appropriate emotional intelligence,” according to the Pentagon’s testimony.

Indeed, where there was “closer partnership and better mentoring and understanding” – as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia David Sedney put it – such attacks are far less likely to occur.

This involves, to a large degree, examining “our own conduct,” Townsend said, and “making sure our own soldiers” comport themselves “in the way we would expect them to.” 

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