Over the past nine months there has been a wave of fatal attacks by Afghan security forces, either soldiers or police, on Coalition soldiers. The colloquial term for this is “green on blue” violence where green are friendly forces, blue represents U.S. and Coalition troops and red means enemies (in this instance the Taliban). So far this year 51 Coalition soldiers have died at the hands of their supposed allies, a major increase over the 39 deaths from green on blue attacks last year. Some of the attackers were Taliban infiltrators but many others, perhaps a majority, were disaffected individuals.
Earlier attacks on Coalition troops resulted in changes in security procedures, including an order that Coalition personnel working with Afghan forces remain armed at all times. It also prompted changes to the rules of engagement for Coalition forces operating in the field, for example, limiting their ability to call in artillery and airstrikes when under attack. Responding to the recent upsurge in deadly attacks, the Coalition commander, U.S. General John Allen, ordered joint operations to be scaled back. This may seem reasonable, under the circumstances, but it creates a dilemma for the Coalition. If it is to meet the goal of a withdrawal of most forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the Coalition must continue its effort to recruit, train and mentor the Afghan Army and police. Yet, as a 2011 Pentagon study warned, a continuing lack of trust based in large part on cultural misunderstandings between U.S. and Afghan forces is a major cause of green on blue attacks and could undermine the training effort.(1)
The surge in green on blue attacks in Afghanistan is taking place against the backdrop of continuing and even growing social and political upheavals across a wide swath of the Muslim world much of it directed against the West, in general, and the United States, in particular. Over the past several weeks more than twenty countries have experienced mob violence ostensibly in reaction to the posting of a YouTube video said to insult Islam. Governments from Tunisia to Pakistan are in transition and even turmoil with groups the U.S. once considered as having ties to terrorists taking power in countries such as Egypt.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack that the administration initially insisted was a spontaneous response to that video but which was later acknowledged to be by terrorists. According to reports based on the Ambassador’s diary, recovered from the abandoned consulate where he died, Stevens’ concerns for his safety and requests for additional security had been rebuffed by a State Department that didn’t want to give the appearance of not trusting the new Libyan government. This sounds a lot like the situation in Afghanistan.
How should the United States respond when the green on blue problem involves not just individuals or small groups but national governments? This is a problem that has confronted the U.S. vis-à-vis Pakistan for most of the last decade. While the U.S. relies heavily on Pakistan in the fight against Islamist terrorists, there is no question that Pakistan is not a completely trustworthy ally. The U.S. has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid even as that country supported and protected terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network and allowed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to live unmolested for years in a house just down the road from the Pakistan equivalent of West Point. Most of the ammonium nitrate that goes into Taliban IEDs that kill Americans in Afghanistan comes from two Pakistani factories.
How about Egypt? The new government there is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, long considered by many observers to have significant ties to Islamic terrorist groups. The U.S. provides billions of dollars in economic and military aid to that country every year and is currently in discussions with the Egyptian government to forgive around $1 billion in that country’s debt. Yet, newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi offered only a half-hearted apology for his government’s failure to protect the U.S. embassy in Cairo from mob violence on the same day that Ambassador Stevens was killed. When a government looks the other way as a mob attacks the U.S. embassy isn’t that an example of a form of green on blue violence?
No wonder President Obama made his much criticized comment regarding U.S.-Egyptian ties: “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally but we don’t consider them an enemy.” That seems to be the best that can be said of many nations in the Middle East. The President’s comment suggests the need for new rules of engagement for dealing with countries where the risk of green on blue incidents, including state-sanctioned violence against U.S. installations, personnel and interests, is likely to be high.
(1) Jeffrey Boldin, A Crisis of Mistrust and Cultural Misunderstanding, N2KL Red Team, May 12, 2011
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