September 6, 2012

Afghanistan's "Green on Blue" Trend: Past Meets Future

Despite an upward trajectory since 2007, the strategic arms race that has manifested in Afghanistan's "Green on Blue" attacks may be entering its final phase. The Taliban's success in infiltrating Afghanistan's national security apparatus depends on a web of related factors, including the insurgency's own ingenuity and a vetting process that cannot catch every fish that slips through the nets. Since one factor cannot be changed externally, Kabul and NATO are necessary left with a renewed sense of urgency to close the routes of infiltration.

Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, commander of ISAF Joint Command, filled in selected information gaps on Wednesday when he videophoned in from Kabul. Along with the fact that 45 NATO service members have been killed by Afghans dressed in government uniforms, Terry told reporters the Taliban are believed to have initiated 25% of these attacks since 2007. In order to halt this rate before it snowballs, NATO is increasing the overall vigilance of its identification program, establishing an "anonymous insider threat reporting system," and "analyzing data on past insider attacks to determine trends and identify threat factors." This information is expected to yield "specific populations that we think are at risk.” On the public relations front, the Pentagon is forced to take both sides of the dilemma: concede the importance of every life and proper training before "staying the course."

“I sense these actions are driven by fear of an increasingly stronger and more capable Afghan national security force … [as the] insurgency is continuously degraded and discredited,” Terry said.

More likely, Afghanistan's army and police are perceived as the weakest and longest link in NATO's chain, forces that would be infiltrated whether the Taliban is degraded or not. The objective of infiltration during conventional and unconventional warfare doesn't change: affect the enemy nation and its allies' psyches. Equally likely, the grand scheme of infiltration was conceived before President Barack Obama decided to send another 55,000 troops to Afghanistan, when the post-9/11 Taliban had reached its peak. This strategy already formed an arm of the Taliban's overall campaign before becoming particularly handy in 2011 and 2012, after NATO saturated the southeastern countryside and forced the Taliban into less confrontational options. "Green on Blue" offers an ideal twist on suicide bombings: a time-stalling maneuver that inflicts a disproportionate amount of damage in relation to 100 NATO casualties spread out over five years.

Terry at one point remarks that an increase in attacks "may reflect the adaptive nature of an enemy whose bombing, assassination and intimidation campaigns are turning Afghanistan’s people against the insurgency. The reality is we're going to face this."

The greater threat to NATO comes from the Taliban attacking Afghans less often.

NATO's urgency to solve the problem - for many members are at risk domestically -  will tighten the vetting process, but a sustainable turning point can only come from within Kabul. Embarrassed by the security lapses and aware that Americans are blaming his ineptitude for the Taliban's plots and the actions of individual Afghans, President Hamid Karzai's administration has promoted "Green on Blue" to the top of its agenda and appears to have a workable strategy in hand. As a security precaution, Karzai ordered a top-to-bottom review at the district and provincial levels to identify future infiltrators with greater accuracy. Hundreds of suspected Afghans have already been taken into custody as a result, and Karzai also allocated new resources to the country's intelligence forces.

"Karzai sees this as a strategic threat so his government is committed from top to bottom," U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday. "Culturally, this really strikes at the heart of the Afghans and how ashamed they feel about it."

The most practical measure, however, is subtraction. Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi explains that monthly recruitments over the past five years averaged 10,000, a rate calculated to increase Afghanistan's army from 100,000 to over 350,000. NATO and Kabul's need to rush the training cycle thus contributed to the eventual spike in "Green on Blue," but Faizi said that the coalition now has the luxury of slowing its pace to 4,000-5,000 per month. Halving the number of incoming recruits should greatly enhance the monitoring process going forward.

"The speedy process was the result of the need that we had to build up our security forces to the number that was required," Faizi said then. "But now we are close to that number so, in a way, we are not in a hurry. The insider attacks is a reason to also bring down this number (of new recruits being vetted each month) — to take more measures and be more careful in recruiting individuals."

Kabul and NATO's countermeasures are likely to slow the trend of "Green on Blue" by 2013. Many strategies and tactics, if left unchanged, can only succeed for so long against a skilled opponent, and the Taliban must have anticipated a reaction at some point. At the same time, infiltration is inherently difficult to prevent and Afghanistan's government will confront this problem after the last U.S. troop withdraws, either in 2014 or 2024. Worse still, a poor performance from the central government will provide an endless source of recruits.

The insurgency is presumably deep into the development of its next strategies. "Green on Blue" has already run its course against NATO and the long-term threat of infiltration is only beginning.

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