Monday, 3 September 2012

Insider Attacks On The Increase

Cultural differences and a lack of trust are behind the killings by rogue Afghan soldiers

IN 2006 an Australian patrol in armoured vehicles ground its way on a rock-strewn road through the Chora Valley in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province.

The Diggers entered a village and were waved down by an elderly man who spoke to them with some excitement in a language they and their young Afghan interpreters did not understand.

Then someone realised he was speaking Russian because he thought the Diggers were Spetsnaz special forces. He wanted to know where they'd been and why they hadn't visited for some time.

By then the Russians had been gone from Afghanistan for 17 years. Hidden away in his valley, the Afghan did not know the war against the Soviets was over and another conflict had begun.

His corner of Afghanistan was almost medieval in terms of lifestyle and attitudes, but with its own set of fiercely held values. It's the landscape where young Australian soldiers have tried for the past seven years to encourage, cajole and drag the community into the modern world.

On the face of it, the task should be an easy one to sell. The NATO-led coalition of about 50 nations is offering peace, education, health services, modern communications and other benefits.

But in a land where the gun has ruled for centuries, they've been resisted in the most brutal fashion by insurgents whose weapons of choice have become improvised bombs, sometimes carried, unwittingly or otherwise, by children.

In the process, 38 Diggers have been killed and more than 200 wounded, many grievously.

Of those Australian soldiers killed, 18 were involved in training and mentoring Afghan troops.

They are brutally aware of the added threat posed by a small number of rogue soldiers in the ranks of those they are training, and that the attacks strike at the heart of the strategy to hand over responsibility for security in Afghanistan to local forces by 2014.

Australian Defence Force chief David Hurley put it bluntly yesterday after the latest killings of three Diggers: ``If we blink, the Taliban win.''

The general told US commanders last year he considered the insider attacks to be ``of strategic significance'' -- meaning they could influence the outcome of the war.

It is clear Afghan soldiers carry out these killings for a wide range of reasons. The Afghan government blames interference by Pakistani and Iranian intelligence agencies; the Americans say most attacks are caused by personal or cultural issues and a relatively small proportion are orchestrated by the insurgents; and the Taliban takes credit for most of them.

The insurgents have been able to put some Afghan personnel under pressure to act by kidnapping or threatening their families.

Other Afghan soldiers and police are convinced the Taliban will take over once the coalition forces leave, and see such killings as a ticket to change sides.

Considerable progress has been made by the ADF in Oruzgan. The road through the Chora Valley is now tar-sealed, and civilians are able to drive across the province in single vehicles rather than convoys. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are being educated, and 40 per cent of them are girls.

But still the killings highlight the dangers faced by these instructors, who often work from forward operating bases and patrol bases, small forts built in valleys captured from the insurgents in what was once the Taliban heartland.

Trust is crucial to the success of the training mission and that is one key reason the Diggers, in the past, have been so good at it.

Though their role is gradually winding down, small groups of well-armed Diggers have lived, trained and fought for years with the Afghan troops they mentor, carrying out frequent joint patrols to keep insurgents on the move, to uncover weapons caches and to try to reassure the locals they can confidently turn away the Taliban.

Operations in areas such as the Chora Valley, Deh Rawud and the Baluchi Valley, green ribbons of fertile ground winding through the jagged brown mountains of southern Afghanistan, are dangerous and the Australian and Afghan troops are exposed.

These valleys have long been used as infiltration routes by Taliban insurgents moving from the highlands to population areas such as Tarin Kowt, where the main Australian force is based, and the troops are there to block them. In winter it's bitterly cold. In summer, the so-called fighting season, it is dusty and hot.

Farther afield, special forces, Special Air Service Regiment troops and commandos carry out patrols, hunting insurgent leaders and bomb-making factories.

It was on such a raid that two Australian commandos were killed this week when a US marines helicopter crashed in darkness.

The attacks from within have become known as ``green on blue'' killings, based on the NATO designations of ``blue'' for its own personnel and ``green'' for members of the Afghan security forces.

They are part of an increasingly dangerous trend that has seen more than 100 coalition instructors slain and as many wounded across the past four years by the Afghan troops or policemen they were training.
At least twice that number of Afghan personnel are believed to have been killed by other Afghans with whom they served.

In April last year, nine American instructors were disarmed and killed in Kabul airport by an Afghan pilot, who then shot himself.

The US military commissioned an investigation headed by behavioural scientist Jeffrey Bordin, who found alarming cultural differences between the US instructors and Afghan soldiers, who were often badly offended and driven to kill by behaviour and language they considered profane or careless of Afghan sensitivities.

Such incidents of fratricide-murder were no longer isolated and reflected a growing systemic threat, Bordin said. They were provoking a crisis of trust among Western instructors.

Afghan grievances against coalition forces ranged from anger at unnecessary civilian casualties and disrespect towards Afghan women, to coalition soldiers' failure to respect local cultural norms, such as removing sunglasses in meetings. US troops complained of Afghan soldiers' treachery, poor hygiene, ineptitude, dishonesty and constant drug use.

The report condemned a ``quantity over quality'' approach to Afghan military and police recruitment in the lead-up to the 2014 withdrawal and warned rising ``green on blue'' attacks had provoked a ``crisis of confidence and trust''.

Action to reduce the threat has been taken at all levels, from tougher scrutiny when Afghan soldiers and police are recruited through to the placing of ``guardian angels'', armed soldiers watching over coalition troops as they train the Afghans. But the insider attacks are extremely difficult to guard against and Hurley warns that it would be near impossible to eliminate the threat completely.

That has been demonstrated repeatedly. Early in August, three highly trained US marines were invited by a local Afghan police commander to stop with him and his men for a meal.

The Americans accepted what they took to be an example of traditional Afghan hospitality. Their Afghan hosts shot them dead as they ate.

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