August 31, 2012

Australia's "Green-on-Blue" Collateral Rattles NATO Future

Australians awoke to a prototypical counterinsurgency line on Thursday: 1, 5, 10 and 38. Adding to 2012‘s single casualty in Afghanistan, two Australians were killed yesterday when their helicopter rolled over during landing in Helmand province. Hours before, a supposed member of the Afghan National Army (ANA) opened fire on a group of soldiers in Uruzgan province, killing another three men and wounding two. The deadliest 24 hours in Australia's 11-year commitment pushed its total casualties to 38, triggering memories of the country's involvement in Vietnam and the Battle of Long Tan in the aftermath.

Long wars everywhere.

"In a war of so many losses, this is our single worst day in Afghanistan," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said after cutting her Pacific tour short to return home. "Indeed, I believe this is the most losses in combat since the days of the Vietnam War and the Battle of Long Tan. This is news so truly shocking that it's going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow."

No 4GW incident of any magnitude is complete without a disproportionate reaction on the home-front. Speaking as though she had memorized the Pentagon's talking points, Gillard arrived at the podium with an arsenal of rhetorical devices to ward off public criticism. "Our strategy is well defined, our strategy is constant," she argued, and Australian troops are "there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through." What this purpose actually entails is given a cursory glance though: "to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for the terrorists who would come and kill Australians and kill so many innocent others.” This NATO argument is streamlined to glide over all public resistance, wherever it surfaces, and push ahead into an unknown future.

"We are making progress, I can tell you that," she told reporters before flying back to Canberra. "I've seen it with my own eyes when I have visited Afghanistan."

However Gillard spoke truthfully when ruling out an acceleration of the country's withdrawal schedule. After all, she has already advanced the deadline by a year, from December 2014 to 2013, citing "security improvements" and the war's unpopularity at home. She clearly wants out as soon as possible, but Australia's commitment to NATO is too deep to leave any earlier, and the populace isn't mobilized to apply pressure beyond negative polling. Nevertheless, the Taliban's latest infiltration continues to expose the same cracks in NATO's alliance and there's no telling when a member will break.

NATO officials have developed three main arguments to minimize the PR disaster of "Green-on-Blue" attacks. The first disregards Taliban claims of responsibility by attributing the majority - upwards of 75% - to personal grievances rather than foreign occupation. NATO's second argument establishes a strawman by concentrating attention on the trust gap between Western soldiers and their ANA counterparts; Air Marshal Mark Binskin, acting chief of the Australian Defence Force, told reporters that  "morale at the moment has taken a hit over this understandably." The resulting conclusion argues that "Green-on-Blue" attacks discolored an otherwise successful summer in Afghanistan.

NATO populaces, in turn, have responded with renewed skepticism to the war's objectives and strategy. They generally discount NATO's claim that the Taliban represent a low number of infiltrators, and with good reason. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the percentage of "Green on Blue" shootings in relation to total casualties has risen from less than 1% in 2008 to 14% in 2012 (2% in 2009, 3% in 2010 and 6% in 2011). Worst still, the idea of copy-cat shooters operating independently of the Taliban - and out of "rage" or spite against an occupying force - generates no additional confidence in NATO's long-term strategy. Many Afghan officials believe that American forces and their allies have simply patrolled the country for too long, made too many enemies and drained their credibility as liberators. Afghans only want them to stay as long as necessary, a feeling that lends itself to ambiguous warfare.

The single-minded focus on NATO's relationship with the ANA is equally deceptive, being true to an undefined extent. Although U.S. officials initially attempted to downplay this growing threat, they have now pushed "Guardian Angels" and loaded magazines to the media forefront in order to demonstrate their proactivity. More disturbingly, Afghan officials claim that American troops have become more distanced in recent months, a reaction noticed by ANA soldiers and commanders. Yet the trust issues between NATO and the ANA remain byproducts of the Taliban's ultimate objective: widening the gap between NATO and its populaces. "Green on Blue" assaults these relationships with full force by targeting both the Afghan government and foreign promises of success.

The three Australians who lost their lives in Uruzgen didn't fall in battle, but at the hands of an ANA soldier as they relaxed in a "secure" base. Thursday's incident marked the fourth internal attack on Australian forces since May 2011, accounting for half of this period's casualties.

The general idea of "Green on Blue" is both old and new: turn NATO governments on their own people and force them to engage in political warfare. Western leaders are no less busy attacking voters than militants. Trust levels on all sides sink further into the morass of guerrilla warfare, and a constantly shrinking margin of error retrains the whole alliance's behavior. Gnawing away at the lynchpin of NATO's strategy - "Afghanization" of the country's security forces - and undermining the possibility of a stable end to the war, the Taliban has effectively countered NATO's surge and will soon engage a lower number of U.S. forces in relative isolation. Canada has already dropped out, France and Australia (and Denmark) will be history by January 2014, and every remaining U.S. ally suffers from chronic unpopularity and internal socio-economic issues. 

The Taliban is aiming for American and European minds through their soldiers - a particularly horrific could expel one of their countries at any moment. And the war in Afghanistan, contrary to Gillard's self-interested notion of an "end," will continue long after Australian forces withdraw.

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