By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal
On the eve of Eid, shrapnel from two rockets fired at Bagram Air Base hit the parked air craft of the most powerful military commander of the world, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; forcing him to await a replacement plane. Such attacks occur nearly every two weeks at this most stringently guarded air base. Before leaving Afghanistan, General Dempsey telephoned President Karzai urging him to ‘do more’ to prevent such attacks.
It is unusual for the Chairman Joint Chiefs to call a head of state. It indicates how desperately US officials view the current spate of insider attacks by Afghan recruits and soldiers which the US forces are attempting to train. A spokesman for General Dempsey said that Mr Karzai committed to working with the United States to examine potential causes for the attacks, including whether they might be the work of outside spy agencies. He further said: “We certainly don’t see this as the one reason… we don’t know what’s causing them, and we’re looking at everything.”
American concern about the growing number of “insider attacks” is not new. Infiltration of the Afghan National Army by the Taliban has been a known issue for quite some time. But now the worry focuses on how coalition troops could protect themselves while training members of the Afghan Army and the police. In a startling incident in the western Farah province, during a graduation ceremony of Afghan police, as soon as one policeman was handed-over his official weapon, he quickly turned around and pumped bullets into two of his American trainers who got killed on the spot. There have been 40 US/ NATO deaths from insider attacks during this year; 10 ISAF service-men have been killed in the last week including 7 Americans.
A recent account by Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Graham shows that number of Afghan-on-Afghan attacks is even higher than those against NATO forces. So far, Afghan soldiers or police have killed 53 of their comrades and wounded at least 22 others in 35 separate incidents during this year.
Another article by James Dao and Andrew Lehren ‘During The Reach of War: In Toll of 2000, New Portrait of Afghan War’ carried by ‘The New York Times’ presents an interesting analysis of American casualties during the Afghan war: “Nearly nine years passed before American forces reached their first 1,000 dead in the war…The second 1,000 came just 27 months later… three out of four were white, 9 out of 10 were enlisted service members, and one out of two died in either Kandahar Province or Helmand Province…Their average age was 26…single highest period for American deaths being July, August and September 2010, when at least 143 troops died… improvised explosive devices, known as IED’s, remained a leading cause of death and injury, along with small-arms fire”. Ironically, 278 foreign soldiers killed themselves last year in Afghanistan as compared to 247 combat related deaths.
This year, a new threat has emerged: attacks by Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces. During the previous two weeks, at least 9 Americans have been killed in such attacks. And for the year, at least 39 non-Afghan troops, mostly American, have been killed by imposters dressed like Afghan security forces. Clearly, it is a situation endemic to a typical asymmetrical war. The point however is that, these insider attacks aren’t entirely carried out by Taliban infiltrated into security forces. Anti-Americanism is also on display, involving Afghans who may not be Taliban sympathisers, but resent the US occupation for a variety of reasons.
Even as the Afghan government says that it would take new measures to counter a wave of deadly insider killings of Western troops by Afghan security forces, President Karzai’s office asserted for the first time that foreign spy agencies were behind most of the attacks, putting it directly at odds with NATO’s assessment of the crisis. His spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said Afghan authorities were studying every known insider attack. He said that based on interrogations of attackers who had been detained and other evidence like letters and records of phone calls, the government had concluded that the main culprits in the killings had been put in place by intelligence services from neighbouring countries. “The investigation done so far shows there is infiltration by foreign spy agencies,” Mr. Faizi said.
American officials at the Pentagon were surprised by spokesperson’s assertion. “We don’t have indications that foreign entities are the locus of sponsorship for insider-attack threats,” said a senior Pentagon official. A senior Pakistani security official called the accusations as “hogwash”. However, the Afghan government conceded that some of the attacks were also motivated by outrage over actions by American troops, including the burning of Quran at an American base and the video images of Marines urinating on dead insurgents.
Despite their presence in Afghanistan for nearly eleven years, Americans have not learnt the honour code of “Pashtun-Wali”. As per this code, the blood spilled by any one has to be avenged by sons, grandsons, even a man from the clan if there is no male left in family and so on. Time is on the sides of Afghans. All Afghans are imbued by the same honour code. Though unfortunate, but in all probability Americans would continue to suffer from Green-on-Blue, as well as bear with the high suicide rate of American soldiers, whose conscience does not let them live due to cruelties committed by their country in this purposeless war.
President Obama spoke at length on the issue during a White House press conference, admitting that he is “deeply concerned” by the growing war casualties. However, he had no viable solution to offer. He talked about dated measures like “better counterintelligence, making sure that the vetting process for Afghan troops is stronger” etc.
The insider attacks have increased concerns about viability of a sustainable transition by occupation forces while they face the dilemma of who’s who! Concerns have all along been expressed by a number of security analysts about the credibility and viability of Afghan National Army and police services. These services do not represent the demographic profile of Afghanistan. Ethnic Pushtuns who are the single largest ethnic group are grossly underrepresented in these two services. These services are a conglomeration of minority ethnic groups and are viewed by the Pushtuns as an extension of foreign occupation forces. Moreover, poor professional skills, high rate of desertions and lax discipline are some of the major weaknesses that point towards their post 2014 non-viability. In all probability these entities would turn into gangs of thugs. For now, the monster seems to have turned against its own creator.
Occupation forces are now in a state of siege in Afghanistan. It appears that there is a tacit unity amongst the public, insurgents and the government officials. All Afghans irrespective of their ethnic or sectarian lineage are unanimous on at least one point: to get rid of foreign occupation forces.
Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI. Email:Khalid3408@gmail.com