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.

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