Eleven years into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, both Americans and Afghans seem to be left with more questions than answers. In just the past few weeks, the joint war effort has seen a steady drumbeat of setbacks: A disastrous insurgent attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion in Helmand cost the lives of two Marines and over $180 million in damage. Eight civilian Afghan women were killed in an airstrike on an insurgent position in Logar province. Twelve people, mostly foreign aid workers, were killed on Sept. 18 by a female suicide bomber in Kabul. And the last fortnight saw four more "green-on-blue" attacks, including the Sept. 30 clash in which both Americans and Afghans were killed, bringing the total to 53 coalition lives lost this year at the hands of their supposed allies.
In the aftermath of such events, many onlookers have taken an understandably grim view -- concluding either that the United States has outstayed its welcome and this is a signal for it to leave (faster), or that the cultural divide is simply so large that an ultimate breakdown in relations is inevitable. These are the talking points the enemies of Afghanistan and the United States are busy propagating and would be all too happy for us to believe.
Instead, the recent acceleration in green-on-blue killings is a tragic consequence of broader issues and misconceptions about the Afghan conflict. It is a symptom of the trust crisis between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), stemming from the U.S. announcement of its withdrawal by the end of 2014 -- regardless of mission completion. It exposes how the enemy continues to rigorously exploit insider attacks for their psychological, rather than purely physical, effects. An effective response begins by recognizing green-on-blue attacks as a symptom of the pre-existing trust crisis, addressing the psychological vulnerabilities they represent, and redoubling efforts to restore trust through cross-cultural engagement. If we reject enemy propaganda and deal with these underlying issues, this moment of crisis can become an opportunity for renewed partnership.
Green-on-blue attacks are not the cause of a trust crisis between the United States and its Afghan partners, but a sobering indication of the loss of Afghan confidence in America as a trustworthy partner. Policy responses to the recent spate of insider attacks have focused on treating the symptom -- slowing Afghan training, revetting thousands of Afghan local police, or scaling back joint patrols. While some of these measures represent positive steps, they will not be effective -- and may actually be counterproductive -- without addressing the underlying issues. We must instead work to reverse the damaging impact of communications about the 2014 withdrawal and focus on a clear, shared vision beyond that date.
Everyday conversations among average Afghans are laced with misgivings about the future. The Taliban have a clear patron: Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. They have a safe haven within Pakistan. They have a clear vision of a post-ISAF Afghanistan and communicate that vision clearly. But what about the reform-minded Afghans who stood with the United States for over a decade and are devoted to our mutual interests? They do not have a clear patron, as everyone knows the international forces are leaving. They do not have a safe haven; everyone knows how hard it is to get visas or asylum in the West, especially the United States. And they do not have a clear vision of what a post-ISAF Afghanistan would look like. Subtle messages from ISAF about "security transition" and "enduring partnership" have not been heard, or are suspect in light of the overwhelming message: "WE ARE LEAVING." Afghans do not resent Americans for being occupiers, but rather for leaving the job unfinished, and leaving the door open for the real occupiers to stroll back in.
Hundreds of survey data points and conversations with Afghans (particularly women and educated youth) reveal a vehement rejection the notion of returning to an oppressive regime under extremists like the Taliban. Afghans widely see the Taliban as a puppet of neocolonialist Pakistan, seeking an unstable and vulnerable Afghanistan as a source of "strategic depth." These Afghans recognize and appreciate the sacrifices made by uniformed members of 49 nations in their re-establishment as a healthy (or at least recovering), self-ruling nation. The enemies of the United States and Afghanistan want us all to believe that Americans are occupiers, and all that is needed for peace is for troops to leave.