US general killed in Afghanistan: How big is threat of insider attacks?

Pentagon officials insist that the death of the highest-ranking US officer in America’s post-9/11 war effort will not change US strategy in Afghanistan. Mission No. 1 is to train Afghan counterparts ahead of US combat forces leaving.

US Army/Reuters
US Army Brig. Gen. Harold J. Greene sat for this Army portrait on Aug. 25, 2005. Media reports identified Greene as the general shot and killed Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, by a man believed to be an Afghan soldier.

The news that a two-star general was shot in Afghanistan Tuesday – the first US general to be killed in action during America’s wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – will inevitably renew questions about the threat of insider attacks on US troops, and whether a change in the US game plan might be in order to mitigate those risks.

More than a dozen troops, including other Americans and a German brigadier general, were wounded in the attack by a gunman who is believed to have been an Afghan soldier.

The shooting took place at a military training center in Kabul – a pointed setting for the attack, given that it is now mission No. 1 for American troops to train their Afghan counterparts in preparation for the departure of US combat forces at the end of this year.

Top Pentagon officials insist there is no reason why the death of the highest-ranking US officer in America’s post-9/11 war effort will change US strategy.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) “continue to perform at a very strong level of competence and confidence – and warfare capability,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said during a briefing with reporters Tuesday, adding that the Pentagon is withholding the general officer’s name pending the notification of his family.

That said, he acknowledged the ever-present danger of insider attacks, calling them “a pernicious threat.”

It is a threat that reached peak levels in 2012, when Afghans who were posing as soldiers – or who actually were soldiers – killed 62 troops, according to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) figures.

These attacks accounted for nearly a quarter of all coalition forces killed in action that year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested at the time that the killings were the result of Pakistani intelligence services brainwashing Afghan recruits. US commanders took issue with that explanation. “I’m looking forward to Afghanistan providing us with the intelligence that permits them to come to that conclusion,” said Gen. John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan at the time.

The Pentagon undertook its own study of the problem and found that while many killings were the result of Taliban infiltration, the majority were committed by disgruntled Afghan troops who felt disrespected by coalition forces or disillusioned with the war effort. The Taliban has not claimed responsibility for the latest attack.

In the wake of the attacks in 2012, NATO began implementing cultural training programs for coalition troops. It also hired contractors to tutor coalition forces on body language clues that might indicate an Afghan counterpart was about to open fire. And it put “guardian angel” programs into place, which involved having an armed coalition guard present in all interactions between Afghan and coalition forces.

The challenge, commanders said at the time, was putting these security measures in place without insulting their Afghan counterparts.

“You know, whoever’s got the responsibility to keep an eye on their mates while they’re taking exercise or playing sport or relaxing in between operations – whoever has that task just tactfully stays on one side,” said Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, then the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, in 2012. “Clearly they have a weapon and they’re ready to use it if necessary, but they’re not constantly in people’s faces.”

Insider attacks have declined markedly since 2012, with two insider attacks against ISAF troops in the first quarter of 2014. Even so, the point of the attacks is to create a wedge of mistrust between US and Afghan troops.

Each attack succeeds in doing just this, according to the Pentagon report, released in 2013. “Despite their sharp decline,” it noted, “these attacks may still have strategic effects on the campaign and could jeopardize the relationship between coalition and ANSF personnel.”

The news that a US general officer was killed Tuesday “just points out the risks that all of these soldiers and Marines share,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

“It’s a tragic day, no question about it, but I actually don’t think the rank is as important as the fact that there is still obviously a risk of insider attacks on Americans who continue to work closely with Afghan National Security Forces,” he says. “You go to meetings with your counterparts in Afghan security. We can mitigate the risk, but we can’t eliminate it.”

And that won’t change, as long as the Pentagon considers training Afghan soldiers and police its job No. 1. Sound US strategy demands such training, argues Mr. Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“These engagements and close contact are essential for us to continue to work with them and build bonds of trust – and for them to take ownership of the war.”

As long as US troops remain in Afghanistan, which is expected to be until well after US combat forces depart in December, “it is important to realize this is still a war zone,” Barno adds. “And anyone in the war zone is going to be at risk.”

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