American and NATO media handlers are in message control mode trying to contain the fallout from the escalation of insider killings of American and NATO soldiers by trained Afghan forces, known in military parlance as “green on blue” attacks. The latest rash of insider attacks on coalition forces has left at least 45 dead in 2012 to date. Fifteen members of the international coalition were killed in insider attacks in August, 12 of them American. In 2011, there were 21 attacks, killing 35; and in 2010 there were 11 attacks with 20 deaths.
The skyrocketing rate of “green on blue” killings is forcing coalition forces to take some desperate measures. NATO has given orders for all coalition troops to remain armed at all times even when “inside the wire” on US bases. US commanders have instituted a “Guardian Angel” program in which one or two American soldiers keep an eye on their Afghan allies in every joint mission or meeting. And some US military units have even resorted to building hardened safe rooms, what they call “Alamos” to protect themselves from potential attacks from the soldiers and police officers they are training.
Throughout all of this, US and NATO spokespersons have made every effort to focus attention on individual cases rather than consider broader trends, resulting in a confusing array of explanations that range from personal grievances with coalition forces to cultural misunderstandings and even the strange notion suggested by Gen. John Allen that Ramadan fasting and unusual summer heat may have contributed to the latest uptick in attacks. Officials do admit that about a tenth of them have been due to actual Taliban infiltrators or Taliban coercion, though later reports concede the number could range up to a quarter. “American officials are still struggling,” wrote the New York Times in an editorial on the subject, “to understand the forces at work.”
But if one moves beyond the fog of individual cases to actually consider those broader “forces at work” it seems rather clear that the escalation in insider killings of NATO and American forces mirrors the simultaneous escalation of Taliban-led insurgent attacks across the country this summer. After a year of declining activity, insurgent attacks began to rise in April only to spike in June, which saw the highest number of attacks in nearly two years, with more than 100 assaults a day across the country. The UN reported in August that civilian deaths were lower in the first six months of 2012 than in the first half of 2011, but that an onslaught of summer attacks by insurgents were threatening to reverse that trend.
The Taliban escalation has been particularly evident in southern areas that were the focus of the 2009 US troop “surge,” but it has also reached parts of Afghanistan where violence had been on the decline over the past few years. Insurgents have targeted government and local officials in greater numbers; NATO reports that the number of IED attacks is rising and suicide bombings have also increased in number and scale, including brazen commando-style martyrdom operations involving as many as 14 bombers in a single attack. And notably, an even greater number of Afghan police and military have killed each other this year in “green on green” attacks than the more widely reported “green on blue” killings.
It was not a coincidence that the Taliban launched what they called the “Al Farooq Jihadi” offensive on May 3, the day after President Barack Obama flew to Kabul to seal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai a ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement in which the US pledged to bolster the Karzai regime with aid and support and to keep around 20,000 troops until 2020 or beyond. What is clear to most, not least the Taliban, is that the emerging American plan is that by the end of 2014 US “combat troops” will be withdrawn, but left behind on the giant bases the Pentagon has built will be thousands of US trainers and advisers, as well as special operations forces whose job will officially be to “stand up” the Afghan force underwritten by continued US and NATO funding to the tune of billions per year.
Thus, while clearly not every insider killing has been carried out directly by the Taliban, the broader meaning and causes of the growing contagion of insider attacks is not in much doubt. The Taliban do not have the power to defeat Afghan or NATO forces in a direct confrontation, nor will they be able to impose their rule after the drawdown of American combat troops in 2014. But despite recent American counterinsurgency efforts, they are showing that they remain a resilient insurgency that can wage a long, innovative and costly rebellion against any plan for the future that does include them. That will mean more IEDs, more suicide bombings and almost certainly more insider killings of US and NATO forces.
In all of this the real message on these insider attacks for American policymakers should be clear. If the plan is to stay in Afghanistan and train an Afghan security force that is increasingly intent on killing Americans and one another, then the plan has already failed. As the influential policy adviser Stephen Biddle glumly commented, “Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point. Political settlement is the route out.” All roads now run through negotiations, and these talks would have to include not only the Taliban and regional parties, but also the goal of a timetable for a real US withdrawal. Given that 2012 is an election year, and given Obama’s electoral embrace of the “good war” and the hawkishness of Romney’s newly minted neocon war cabinet, the chances of Washington receiving this message any time soon are slim.