By Ahmad Majidyar, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
A gunman in an Afghan army uniform killed three Australian soldiers in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday night, the latest in an alarming string of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks that have eroded morale and trust at a critical juncture as foreign troops are withdrawing and transitioning security to the Afghan lead. The deaths bring the number of foreign troops killed by Afghan allies, or by Taliban fighters disguised as them, to 45 this year, most of them Americans.
According to General John R. Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban has been responsible for one quarter of these attacks through infiltration, coercion and impersonation. The new threat has been a PR disaster for Kabul and Washington, but a propaganda victory for the Taliban. In his Eid al-Fitr message, the insurgent group’s reclusive leader Mullah Omar claimed his fighters had “cleverly infiltrated in the ranks of the enemy,” and that the Taliban had created the “Call and Guidance, Luring and Integration” department to encourage more defections.
But while the Taliban has played a role, the majority of these attacks have been carried out by disgruntled Afghans with no connection with the insurgents.
One reason is battle fatigue. Afghanistan has already surpassed Vietnam as America’s longest war. For Afghans, the country has been embroiled in ceaseless conflict since the 1978 Soviet-backed coup. Drug addiction and mental disorders among Afghan soldiers and policemen are other key factors. A lack of cultural and religious sensitivity, as well as instances of miscommunication and verbal arguments, has also triggered such attacks. It is not a coincidence that insider attacks sharply increased after the Kandahar massacre and Quran burning by American soldiers earlier this year.
Left unchecked, these attacks have serious implications for the transition plan and NATO’s Afghanistan exit strategy. Insider attacks are particularly worrying because they call into question the most critical pillar of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy, which is to train and build a capable and credible Afghan force that can maintain security and prevent the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda after foreign troops’ departure in two years. Training and mentoring requires close partnership and is impossible without trust. One damaging effect would be a reduction in joint operations.
A continuation of insider killings could also produce political costs, and would further erode public support for the war in the U.S. and Europe. About two-thirds of Americans already do not want troops to be fighting in Afghanistan, and more such attacks would create domestic pressure on allied nations to withdraw troops faster than the 2014 timeline. Indeed, troop casualties were one reason countries such as France and New Zealand charted a faster pullout plan.
So, what can be done? First, the Afghan and U.S. governments need to get on the same page over the issue. The Afghan government, contradicting NATO officials’ findings, blames foreign spy agencies, a euphemism for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for the attacks. Both sides need to agree on what the real causes are and to act in unison to reduce the threat.
To mitigate the Taliban infiltration, both the Afghan and coalition forces need to increase the number of their intelligence and counterintelligence personnel. The Afghan government, meanwhile, needs to implement a more rigorous vetting and recruitment process. More in-depth cultural awareness arrangements for coalition and Afghan forces could also prove useful. NATO officials should also ensure that new security measures are balanced. Too extreme measures could offend the Afghans, widen the gap between the two allies, and increase the level of threat.
The insider attacks are still isolated incidents and do not reflect the overall security situation in Afghanistan – coalition and Afghan forces make hundreds of contacts and conduct joints operations on a daily basis. The Afghan security forces have seen remarkable progress in size and quality over the past two years, and some 350,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen are now responsible for security of more than half the population. But if insider killings continue to rise dramatically, they could potentially derail the overall Afghanistan strategy and undo gains made over a decade of conflict.