Before long, the soldiers would know the terrifying truth: that it was Afghan police officers who, after climbing the wall of a hillside observation post assigned to keeping an eye out for Taliban movement, had emptied their weapons on their American comrades inside.
That night, four Americans died at the hands of their Afghan assailants, making it the deadliest of a string of insider attacks that added up to the worst year for what the military calls “green-on-blue” violence of the Afghanistan war. Last year 61 international forces – at least 34 of them Americans – were killed by Afghan security forces, nearly half of the 132 killed by insider attacks since 2008.
The Zabul incident intensified an already growing sense of crisis in the US and Afghan militaries over the problem of insider attacks. The result has been a series of steps on both the Afghan and international sides that officials say are having an impact in addressing a particularly demoralizing form of violence.
Yet while initial evidence seems encouraging -- so far in 2013, six US and other international soldiers have been killed in insider attacks – there is also reason for caution. For one thing, those six deaths represent 13 percent of total coalition deaths this year, about the same as the 15 percent of total coalition fatalities they represented last year, according to statistics compiled by the Long War Journal. And the summer fighting season is just getting under way.
On the other hand, well over half of 2012’s 34 insider killings occurred in the first five months of the year. By comparison, this year’s six killings through mid-May represent a reduction of about two-thirds.
(NATO Command in Afghanistan reports slightly different inside-attack figures than Long War Journal: 129 coalition forces killed since 2008, 62 in 2012, and four this year.)
No one claims the problem is solved, but officials are cautiously hopeful that the lower number of “green-on-blue” killings so far this year means that steps – ranging from increased vetting of Afghan security forces and reduced occasions where Afghans are armed while in the company of US and other foreign forces, to enhanced cultural awareness training – are having an impact.
“This violence is an embarrassment for both sides, it’s an issue that can create a lot of mistrust between us – and in the last months we have taken a lot of measures against this issue,” says Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of Army staff in the Afghan military.
Among the measures implemented: The Afghan Army has added hundreds of counterintelligence officers to keep an eye on recruits for signs of “anti-foreigner” sentiment, soldiers returning from leave are interviewed and watched for signs of Taliban indoctrination. Like the US and other NATO countries, Afghanistan has put more emphasis on religious and cultural-sensitivity training.
On the coalition side, the US has implemented a “guardian angels” program under which units designate soldiers to provide security to troops who are training, overseeing, and accompanying Afghan security forces.
The US has also reinforced its counterintelligence capabilities, and augmented cultural awareness training among its troops. The cultural sensitivity effort is tacit acknowledgment, some military experts say, that events of 2012 like the unintentional Quran burnings at Bagram Air Base and the video posted on the Internet of US soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters helped incite the rage behind some of the attacks.
The Taliban issued a statement shortly after the Zabul attack, for example, claiming it was carried out by police officers it had recruited to retaliate for a US-made anti-Muslim video that denigrates the prophet Muhammad.
Still, NATO officials say steps taken by the Afghan Army in particular have been critical in reducing the threat.
“We’ve enhanced training in how to guard against it, and there is a decrease,” says Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, commander of the Afghan Training Mission-Afghanistan. “But most important is what the government of Afghanistan is doing” with enhanced vetting and intelligence efforts, he says. “That’s a critical part of it.”
NATO’s second in command in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, says that while insider attacks “in the last six months have been ably contained,” they remain “a problem that needs continued focus and attention.”
One challenge both the coalition and the Afghans will be watching out for is Taliban success in encouraging not just “green-on-blue” but also “green-on-green” insider violence.
In an April statement proclaiming the start of the 2013 fighting season, the Taliban encouraged Afghans in the security forces to turn against both the “foreign transgressors” in Afghanistan and their Afghan compatriots cooperating with foreign troops. The Taliban have also been known to threaten violence against the families of Afghan soldiers and police officers who resist pressure to carry out an attack.
“We shouldn’t be surprised to see the enemy encouraging this tactic again, because it saw last year as being successful,” says Fred Kagan, a military expert and Afghan war specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Last year‘s spike in attacks prompted the US to suspend joint patrols for a short time, and to temporarily pull advisers from Afghan ministries. After a deadly insider attack that left five of its troops dead, France announced it would pull its combat forces out of Afghanistan early.
NATO officials acknowledge that the Taliban will try to boost insider attacks again. “They’re trying to drive a wedge between ISAF [international forces in Afghanistan] and the Afghans, and to drive a wedge between members of the coalition,” says Brig. Gen. Adam Findlay, a deputy to NATO Afghanistan Commander Gen. Dennis Dunford.
Perhaps one encouraging note coming out of investigations into last year’s attacks, General Findlay says, is that none of 2012’s 47 attacks appears to have been the result of personal animosity – no attacks “by people who were person-to-person offended,” he says.
“What we heard in questioning the perpetrators was ‘They don’t respect our women’” or references to the Quran burnings, says Findlay.
In other words, US troops may want to keep an eye out for Afghans who might return to training radicalized or under pressure from the Taliban after a long leave.