'Insider killings' challenge US exit strategy in Afghanistan

The Pentagon wants to know whether the recent spike in 'insider killings' – Afghan forces targeting US and NATO forces – reflects 'infiltration, impersonation, and coercion' or is mainly just personal. 

D. Myles Cullen/Department of Defense/AP
Marine Gen. John Allen, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander, meets with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (unseen) in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo released Monday.

What is the reason for the growing number of “insider” attacks on US troops by the Afghan security forces that they are charged with training?

It is a troubling topic that the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, attempted to tackle this week.

There have been 32 confirmed insider attacks so far this year, with at least 40 NATO troops killed – including 26 Americans.

Training Afghan security forces is meant to be the US exit strategy in the country – as these forces stand up, the oft-repeated Pentagon credo goes, US forces can stand down.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered his own explanation for the recent spate of insider killings, blaming the Pakistani intelligence services for brainwashing Afghan recruits.

To this, General Allen sounded somewhat skeptical. “I’m looking forward to Afghanistan providing us with the intelligence that permits them to come to that conclusion," he said in a Pentagon briefing Thursday.

The Pentagon for its part has insisted that the vast majority of these killings are the result of personal grievances, “social difficulties,” and arguments gone awry with US forces.

Only 10 percent of these killings, they say, are the result of Taliban infiltration.

Allen offered that the figure might be higher, suggesting that Taliban “infiltration, impersonation, coercion” could account for “about 25 percent or so” of the killings.

Others, he said, may be due to “radicalization or having become susceptible to extremist ideology.” 

As for the rest, “We’re trying to understand what may have caused each case, but also in the aggregate why these attacks have occurred,” he said.

He pointed to the stress of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, which came in the middle of the fighting season this year, “during the harshest time for the climate in much of the region.”

He continued: “The daily pressures that are on some of these troops, compounded by the sacrifice associated with fasting, the nature of our operational tempo ... and they’ve been in combat now for years. We believe that the combination of many of these particular factors may have come together during the last several weeks to generate the larger numbers that you point to.”

Analysts have pointed out that Ramadan fell during the summer fighting season last year as well, yet with fewer "insider killings."

In short, the question of insider threats “still requites a lot of analysis,” Allen acknowledged.

In the meantime, will this threat imperil the US strategy in Afghanistan, which hinges on intensive training of these forces?

“At this particular moment, I don’t believe that we need to contemplate reducing our contact with the Afghans,” he said. 

He suggested that instead forging closer ties with Afghan forces may be the key. “What we have learned is that the closer the relationship with them – indeed, the more we can foster a relationship of brotherhood – the more secure that we are.” 

In the meantime, troops at NATO headquarters and other bases around Afghanistan have been instructed to carry loaded weapons with them at all times. Coalition troops will need to “be more careful about our force protection,” Allen added, “be more watchful of the emergence of a threat.”

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