The deadly insider attack that killed an Army major general and wounded more than a dozen other troops Tuesday has led to questions about the way ahead in Afghanistan and the strength of the partnership between coalition and Afghan troops.
The U.S. and NATO are drawing down in Afghanistan after more than 12 years of war. The goal is to transfer complete security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of this year.
President Obama has called for a force of 9,800 U.S. troops to continue to train and advise Afghan security forces through 2015. That number would be halved by the end of next year, with almost all U.S. troops scheduled to depart the country by the end of 2016.
After a spike in insider attacks in 2012, the number of incidents seemed to have declined even as the U.S. began drawing down its troops from the country.
But on Tuesday, a man believed to have been an Afghan soldier opened fire on a group of Western troops at The Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul.
Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was killed. Greene, the first American general to be killed by hostile fire in combat since Sept. 11, 2001, was the deputy commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.
CSTC-A, along with the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, is primarily responsible for training and advising the Afghan National Security Forces.
After Tuesday’s attack, the threat of insider attacks, which a top Pentagon spokesman called “pernicious,” was thrust back into the national debate.
In 2012, 53 coalition troops were killed in 38 separate insider attacks, the Associated Press reported. In 2013, there were 16 deaths in 10 separate attacks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned Tuesday’s attack in the “strongest possible terms,” calling it a “cowardly act by the enemy of Afghanistan,” said Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, in an interview with Army Times.
The Afghan government has worked since 2012 to put in place measures to mitigate these types of attacks, Hakimi said. This includes a “comprehensive” eight-stage vetting process for all new army and police recruits, more robust intelligence and information sharing, and a cultural manual put together by Afghan and coalition leaders to help troops on both sides better understand each other, he said.
“After all, we are partners, and we have been fighting shoulder to shoulder against this common enemy,” Hakimi said. “We should not leave any room whatsoever for any deficit of trust.”
All of these measures have worked quite well, Hakimi said, but “I can tell you, very honestly, that despite all these security measures, such attacks in the future may never totally be ruled out.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby made similar comments during a press briefing Tuesday.
“The insider threat is a pernicious threat,” he said. “It’s difficult to always ascertain … particularly in a place like Afghanistan. But you can work hard to mitigate it and minimize it, and [the International Security Asistance Force] has done that.”
The U.S. plan to leave in Afghanistan less than 10,000 soldiers, spread across the country in small groups, after this year is a mistake, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former chief of U.S. Southern Command who has traveled extensively to Iraq and Afghanistan to provide feedback to military leaders.
A force of that size cannot make “any substantial difference in the outcome,” and it leaves troops “subject to insider attacks and abduction,” McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey said he believes the reason for the decrease in insider attacks since 2012 is the decrease in the number of U.S. troops in theater.
But with a small force of about 10,000 troops, “you end up with a team stuck somewhere on the frontier with Pakistan, 15 to 20 troops, they’ll be minus any nearby combat unit, minus any medevac,” McCaffrey said. “I think the risk is going to skyrocket. I also believe there’s a tremendous distrust between the U.S. and our NATO allies and Afghan security forces.”
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Mike Hammond, who is deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan and the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, said he and his fellow advisors share “a pretty intricate mix of emotions.”
“Grief for the general and many others who have died here,” he wrote in an e-mail to Army Times. “Fear, yes, uncertainty about bad guys vs. good guys, but also fear that the public will think all of them are like that, when it’s actually the opposite.”
Most of the Afghans Hammond and his fellow airmen work with every day are “honest, good people who are as brave, or braver, than anyone else wearing a uniform,” he said.
But the threat of an insider attack is fresh on the troops’ minds, including the April 2011 attack by an Afghan colonel that killed eight airmen and a contractor at Kabul International Airport.
“There is still a tribute, in the hallway of my barracks here, to the NATC-A Nine, the nine [Air Force] advisers killed here doing this very mission several years ago,” Hammond said. “At our office on [Forward Operating Base] Oqab, their portraits line the walls in memorial to their sacrifice. Not one of us ever forgets that they died, or how.”
There is a “genuine affection” between the U.S. advisers and the Afghan troops with whom they work every day, but Hammond admitted that “it is a very strange thing to manage emotionally and mentally.”
“How does one successfully advise and communicate and break down barriers to communication with a group of people, but yet always be ready to defend oneself at a second’s notice?” he said. “We have both the luxury of knowing that the vast majority of Afghan military members are well meaning and courageous … but also of knowing that every meeting could be our last on earth. [It’s] nothing new to frontline soldiers and airmen and Marines to live facing death, but facing it in a routine meeting is its own unique mental challenge to overcome.”
As the NATO coalition prepares to welcome a new commander in Army Gen. John Campbell, the Army’s vice chief until Friday, it remains to be seen whether U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after Dec. 31.
The Afghan government has yet to sign a bilateral security agreement needed for U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after this year. Current President Hamid Karzai has deferred the matter to his successor, and the recent presidential elections are bogged down in a vote audit with no end in sight.
Afghan troops and police are supposed to continue the fight after U.S. troops leave, but the Afghan security forces are not ready yet, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Currently, Afghan security forces are plagued by corruption, which is more pronounced among Afghan police, which make up roughly half of all security forces, Cordesman said. Another major problem is attrition, wherein Afghan troops and police simply don’t show up for duty.
“The attrition problems don’t reflect defections to the Taliban; they reflect the fact that – particularly in the army – no one is ever granted leave,” Cordesman said. “They are not rotated out as our troops would be so there is a training and effectively a recovery cycle.”
When asked if the U.S. can trust Afghan security forces, Cordesman replied, “The answer has to be ‘no’ because they were never designed to be ready at the scale in the president’s withdrawal plan.”
While the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, it wasn’t until 2010 that the U.S. deployed an adequate number of trainers for Afghan forces, he said. The Afghan air force was never intended to be independent before 2018.
“History tells us, in Vietnam, Iraq and virtually every other conflict, that when you pull advisers out of forward positions too soon, you make the force far weaker: It doesn’t mature; it doesn’t have time to develop. That will be what happens when you cut the critical minimum of advisers and enablers by 50 percent by the end of next year.”
Going forward, how well Afghan troops and police fight will depend in part on whether they feel the U.S. intends to pull all of its troops from Afghanistan, said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
“I did have some worries that we’re inadvertently signaling that we’re going to close the door on this in 2016,” Barno said. “I think that if they begin to perceive that the U.S. is leaving lock, stock and barrel, they are going to start thinking about their life after that point in time.”
While Afghan units vary in capability, the key to their success is continued U.S. involvement, he said.
“My take is if the resources continue to flow to them and the U.S. is committed and has got advisers there, I think they will remain capable and committed,” Barno said. “If the resources in particular go away, I think then all bets are off.”