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Meltdown of Afghanistan's security forces

27 August, 2012

By Khalid Iqbal


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On the eve of Eid, shrapnel from two rockets fired at the Bagram Airbase hit the parked aircraft of the most powerful military commander of the world, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; forcing him to await a replacement plane. Such attacks occur nearly every two weeks at this most stringently guarded airbase. Before leaving Afghanistan, General Martin E. Dempsey telephoned President Hamid Karzai urging him to 'do more' to prevent such attacks.

It is, however, unusual for the Chairman Joint Chiefs to call a head of state. It indicates how desperately the US officials view the current spate of insider attacks by Afghan recruits and soldiers, which they are attempting to train. A spokesman for General Dempsey said: "Mr Karzai committed to working with the US 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."

America's concern over the growing number of insider attacks is not new. Infiltration of the Afghan National Army by the Taliban has been known 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 the 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 died on the spot. There have been 40 US/Nato deaths due to insider attacks during this year; 10 Isaf servicemen have been killed in the last week, including seven Americans.

A recent account by Richard A. Oppel Jr and Graham shows that the number of Afghan on Afghan attacks is even higher than those against the Nato forces. So far, the 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, In Toll of 2,000, New Portrait of Afghan War, written by James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren and published in The New York Times, presents an interesting analysis of American casualties during the Afghan war: "Nearly nine years passed before the 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, nine 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 nine Americans have been killed in such attacks. For the year to date, at least 40 non-Afghan troops, mostly Americans, have been killed by militants dressed like Afghan security forces. Clearly, it is a situation endemic to a typical asymmetrical war. The point, however, is that these insider attacks are not entirely carried out by the Taliban infiltrated into the security forces. Anti-Americanism is also on display involving the Afghans, who may not be Taliban sympathisers, but resent the US occupation for various 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 the 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 the Nato's assessment of the crisis." His Spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said that the 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.

The American officials at Pentagon were surprised by the 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 the US troops, including the burning of the Holy Quran at an American base and the video images of marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan.

Despite their presence in Afghanistan for nearly 11 years, the Americans have not learnt the honour code of 'Pashtunwali'. According to this code, the blood spilled by anyone 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, the Americans would continue to suffer from 'green-on-blue' attacks, as well as bear with the high suicide rate of American soldiers whose conscience does not let them live due to the cruelties committed by their country in this purposeless war.

President Barack 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."

The insider attacks have increased concerns about the viability of a sustainable transition by the 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 the Afghan army and police services. These services do not represent the demographic profile of Afghanistan. Ethnic Pashtuns, who are the single largest ethnic group, are grossly underrepresented in them. These services are a conglomeration of ethnic minority groups and are viewed by the Pashtuns 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.

The occupation forces are now in a state of siege in Afghanistan. It appears that there is substantial tacit unity among the public, insurgents and government officials. All Afghans, irrespective of their ethnic lineage or sectarian belief, are unanimous on at least one point: to get rid of the foreign troops.


The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.

Email:khalid3408@gmail.com

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