Afghanistan : the creeping enemy within

March 15, 2012

Shortly before U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s  plane was to land on an unannounced trip in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, an Afghan man in a stolen pickup truck drove onto the tarmac at high speed. The  truck crashed into a ditch after it sped across the runway ramp and the driver, whose motives were unclear, emerged from the vehicle in flames.  No explosives were found on the man who later died or in the truck  and the Pentagon said at no point was the defense chief’s plane in danger. But it was an extraordinary breach of security at the British airfield in the southern province of Helmand which sits next to a vast U.S. Marine base.

Later that day U.S. Marines,  gathered to hear Panetta speak, were ordered to leave their weapons outside the tent just like the Afghans who had been told before not to bring their weapons to the tent. The New York Times quotes the top U.S. military officer in Helmand as saying he wanted a consistent policy for both the Marines and their Afghan partners.  Again it tells you about the nervousness that has crept into U.S. operations in Afghanistan, after a spate of green-on-blue attacks or attacks on coalition forces and advisers by their Afghan allies that strike at the heart of the mission  to prepare the Afghan national forces to take over the fight against the Taliban.

Last month’s killing of two American advisors in a high security command centre in the interior ministry by what officials said was an police intelligence officer, amid an outpouring of anger over the accidental burning of Korans at the main U.S. base, was particularly chilling. It was followed less than a week later by the killing of two U.S. soldiers at a base in  Kandahar in an attack  involving at least one Afghan believed to be a soldier and a civilian. This week foreign forces are on alert across Afghanistan for reprisal attacks following the killing of 16 villagers by a rogue U.S. soldier who slipped off his base in Kandahar to carry out an unexplained rampage.

But even before this spike in tension, the frequency of insider attacks has been growing even before the Koran incident. About 70 members of the NATO-led force were killed in 42 such attacks from May 2007 through the end of January this year, two-thirds of them over the two last two years.  It has been downplayed as most armies would do, but it really jumped up in the public consciousness in January when  four French soldiers were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier in eastern Kapisa province. The shootings  prompted France to suspend training and support operations on the ground temporarily and to announce a schedule to pull out of Afghanistan completely at the end of 2013 with President Nicholas Sarkozy,  facing a tough re-election, saying the French army was not in Afghanistan for Afghan soldiers to shoot at them.

Some of the rise in these attacks can be attributed to the sheer rise in the number of soldiers in theatre. Tens of thousands of more American soldiers are deployed as part of the surge to re-take control of the country from the Taliban before pulling out by the end of 2014. In lock-step, the size of the Afghan army and police  is growing each month, touching 250,000 at the present time. The target is to take it to 350,000 before trimming it and a force that size is vulnerable to infiltration, military officials say.

The question is who are these attackers ? Are they soldiers gone rogue, as happens to the best of armies including as we have tragically last weekend to the U.S. mlitary as well, or are they men who have become radicalised in service. Worse were they Taliban in the first place who had infiltrated into the army to carry out such attacks,  sleeper cells ?

In the light of these attacks NATO said in Brussels this week it was tightening vetting of soldiers to stop infiltration. What else are they going to do ?  You can put intelligence men inside ANA units to keep an eye on the men for suspicious behaviour,  follow them when they go on leave.  Who keeps an eye on the intelligence men, though ? Surely these things have happened before when your intelligence men have crossed over.

It must weigh on NATO commanders as they go on patrols with their Afghan partners and it speaks to how hard the mission has become.g So dependent are the foreign forces that you don’t just expect the interpreter to translate for you but part of his responsibility is to keep an eye out for anything suspicious he sees or hears. What if he deliberately ignores the warning signs ?  ” You always have to keep the thought in the back of your mind that something bad could happen — not coming from the populace but coming from the [police]. And you have to protect yourself,” NPR quoted  U.S. Army Capt. Joe Fritze, who trains Afghan policemen in Kabul, as saying.

One unit makes sure the number of coalition soldiers is double that of Afghans, just in case someone turns the gun on them out on patrol.  Counter insurgency is tough in any environment especially when faced with a hostile or at best a population unwilling or unable to help, but to fight while looking over your shoulder for the enemy within seems a bridge quite far.

4 comments

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In 2001 GWB said that the US was going to punish those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and those who supported them. It should have been a swift mission of attacking those perpetrated it – Al Qaeda and those who supported them – Taliban and ?. The US stopped with the Taliban. What they did not realize was that the Taliban were merely used as a pawn in the whole thing. The real culprit chose become the closest ally on the fore front for the war on terror. Had the US simply bombed the day lights out of Pakistani military installations and the Taliban at the same time, there would have been no need to go through all this drama. Once missiles and bombers knocked out the real enemies on both sides of the Durand line, then negotiations should have been started with the line, “Now are you with us are against us?” There would have been no need to land any foot soldiers in Afghanistan. Just relentless bombing, negotiations, resumption of bombing and more negotiations would have brought every one of these elements to their knees. One can show kindness to dogs, bears even by offering them food. But showing kindness to crocs is foolish. Crocs do not understand compassion or love. They’d just bite anything that is offered to them including those who offer food. Crocs must be dealt with differently than dogs. The US made the first fundamental mistake of trying to ride on the croc itself to catch frogs in the pond. The croc now has bitten off its rear end and the US is stumbling and falling in this bad land. They must leave the place with one stern warning – any more attempts on innocent citizens by their radical elements, they will face endless barrage of missiles hitting the entire Af-Pak. The US defeated itself in this war with the Taliban or any other invisible enemy not having to do anything at all.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

@Sanjeev
You are quite a character! It is about time that you discard words such as insurgents, talibans, rogues etc. and replace them with occupation army and resistance which is spreading to the citizens of Afghanistan. Mr Karzai has said what he had to say; the yanks ignored him. Just follow history , the last statement that Mr Karzai has to make is that all foreign forces must withdraw from Afghanistan. They are all hostages at present, and the sooner they exit the safer it would be for the European contingent who were genuinely playng the adviser role for the Afghan police. The Americans have demonstrated the stregnth of their marines, night patrols into houses and playing the role of heroes against women, old and chldren; and during the day hit and run tactics and avoid confronting the enemy. The resistance has all the cards now; they can strike as and when they like, by using the Afghan police, or the army and occasionaly with commando actions. How many times the Afghan soldiers were hit with explosives when in a vehicle? Time has run out for the yanks, for Leon to philosophize the war scenario in a land which has seen more wars than the USA is laughable.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PNv-yU44 YI&feature=related

@29:40 listen the Soviet soldier’s motive in killing Afghan civilians back during the Sviet-Afghan war. Sad that the Afghan nation has endured so much suffering. One can only hope that nation has peace and prosperity. Today, average American soldier in Afghanistan faces same trauma that the Soviets faced.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

@Umair

This has been the destiny of all Pashtuns Afghans throughout in history. They find peace when they are at war; and rediscover their faith when they become the victims of brutal force. Mr Karzai has now spoken as expected. The stage is now set for the next phase. Soviets were indigenous people, whereas the Americans are not; Soviet crossed into Afghanistan to expand their union beyond hindukush and left with their union with central asian nations in tatters. The Yanks intruded into the land since Afghanistan refused to submit, and today it is no longer the only super power of the world. The all out attack against their might is coming to a closure. I could very well see Mr Putin becoming active and participating in the fall of Imperial America.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive