National Security

Inside and Upside Down

Why the Pentagon's ad hoc plans to prevent green-on-blue attacks could backfire.

It's officially an epidemic. Attacks from within the Afghan security forces have killed a record number of international troops this year. As of October 2012, a total of 55 fatalities were reported as a result of these "insider," or "green-on-blue" attacks -- which now account for an astonishing 15 percent of all coalition casualties this year.

Not surprisingly, the insider threat has had a profoundly negative effect on the partnership between international and Afghan forces, just as the NATO-led coalition is preparing to end its mission. In September, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took Afghan partners and international allies by surprise when it announced the temporary suspension of joint patrols and operations. About a week later, cooperation resumed, but the effect of this move still reverberates both in Afghanistan and beyond. As outgoing ISAF commander, Gen. John Allen, told CBS's 60 Minutes in a recent interview: "We're willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we're not willing to be murdered for it."

What has become clearer with the news of each successive attack is that insider violence is now having a strategic effect on the coalition's plans for withdrawal. Nothing underscores the perceived futility of the NATO mission in Afghanistan than Afghan allies who kill scores of international troops. As such, they already have an impact on the transition, which may end up being fast-tracked if Washington or Kabul can't figure out a way to stem the problem.

It is a problem that has most NATO members with a troop presence in Afghanistan considerably worried. Consequently, the issue has been addressed on the highest levels. At the NATO conference early this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sought to reassure his allies that steps were being taken to address the issue: "We can only deny the enemy its objective by countering these attacks with all of our strength." In mid-August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, flew in for talks with ISAF commander General Allen and his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi. Even U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to admit there was something rotten in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan when he addressed the issue at an August news conference, albeit in passing.

The string of insider attacks has left NATO scrambling to find effective countermeasures. But there's no easy solution. The causes for these attacks are manifold, attributed to a potent mix of insurgent infiltration, resentment, radicalization, and combat stress. However, there is no clear explanation as to why this disturbing trend has surfaced with such vehemence. In 2011, coalition forces lost 31 service members in attacks committed by Afghan security personnel. In 2010, the year of the troop surge, insider attacks accounted for 21 coalition casualties. In a message to celebrate the end of this year's Ramadan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar claimed the successful penetration of the Afghan security forces was part of a comprehensive plan to subvert the international strategy. The veracity of the message could not be confirmed, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also offered similar statements to that effect.

Some analysts say the green-on-blue attacks are a side effect of the externally induced growth of the Afghan security forces, which are being rapidly stood up as U.S. troops prepare to leave. In just three years, they have grown from 163,000 in March 2009 to 350,000 in March 2012. In order to muster this enormous amount of personnel, both the Afghan security forces and the coalition have had to lower their sights. Haphazard vetting and superficial background checks were a logical consequence. The coalition recently said it thought about 25 percent of all reported insider attacks were related to insurgent infiltration. But particular flashpoints may have also contributed to the spike in attacks. Incidents like the accidental burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Field in February or the Panjwayi massacre in Kandahar earlier this year have done much to antagonize significant parts of the population and by extension, members of the Afghan security forces.

Unfortunately, why the attacks have occurred is less important now than how to stop them. This summer, both the coalition and the Afghan forces have begun to implement several provisions designed to reduce the risk of insider attacks. Some measures are designed to provide protection to the troops on the ground; others are geared toward prevention.

One of the more prominent countermeasures is the employment of "guardian angels" -- essentially NATO troops assigned additional guard duty to watch out for fellow soldiers. Effectively babysitting with guns, this is the most visible provision in effect across the theater. Yet this approach isn't without risk. While guardian angels might nip the odd attack in the bud, Afghan troops may perceive the presence of armed guards as an insult to their sense of partnership and hospitality. In turn, this could further aggravate potential antagonisms, perhaps even creating an additional risk. General Allen's decision to upgrade weapon status to "amber" level, an order issued in August, simply adds spine to the guardian angel concept. Nationwide, ISAF service members will now have to carry loaded weapons around the clock while they are on base. The change in weapon security status across the theater is a clear sign that the problem of insider attacks isn't limited to certain geographic areas or to specific military forces. But this tactic is limited to protection, not prevention.

Another interesting provision, which has received less coverage, is a new pocket guide for ISAF forces based on a classified handbook. Published by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in February, this four-page "smart card" aims to provide advice to deployed troops on how to deal with "Inside the Wire Threats." It picks up some of the findings of a now widely cited report, "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," compiled by military behavioral analyst Jeffrey Bodin, which suggested that cultural differences were one key reason behind the increase of insider attacks. Ultimately, the guide may help to raise awareness, but it's unlikely it will play a more than a very limited role in the overall effort to combat the issue of insider attacks.

On the Afghan side, provisions to counter this problem have been made as well, albeit on a more haphazard basis. Frequently omitted is the fact that the Afghan security forces suffer from insider attacks -- scores of Afghan troops have been wounded and killed by rogue colleagues, who often defect to the Taliban. There are no credible figures for green-on-green violence, but analysts believe that the number may be double that of attacks on international troops. And yet Afghans are in many ways much better predisposed to mount effective countermeasures to this threat: There is much less of a cultural divide, a lower language barrier, and a more intimate familiarity between the individuals within any security force or unit.

Consequently, enhanced intelligence and counterintelligence capacities are among the most prominent measures implemented by the Afghan security forces. Those measures include the deployment of undercover intelligence officers, surveillance of phone calls, and a ban on cell phone use among new recruits. Security personnel with ties to foreign countries have come under particular scrutiny. The Afghan Ministry of Defense has even gone so far as to order troops whose families live in Pakistan to either relocate them to Afghanistan or quit the force. (This policy, however, seems to have been implemented haphazardly and on a case-by-case basis.)

The recruitment and vetting process of the Afghan security forces has also moved into the spotlight. Too many recruits have entered the Afghan security forces without adequate background and security checks, which has opened the door to insurgent infiltration. Tribal elders or village dignitaries, who are required to vouch for the character of potential recruits, aren't held accountable -- a fact which isn't likely to change anytime soon. Of particular concern here has been the creation of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), comprised largely of paramilitary groups that are mentored by U.S. Special Forces as part of the Village Stability Operations concept. Members of the ALP have frequently been accused of theft, murder, and other human rights violations. In September, U.S. Special Forces temporarily suspended the training of 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police to allow for the re-vetting of already existing members, of whom there are roughly 12,000.

On a wider basis, the Afghan National Security Council recently announced plans to enhance the screening process for recruits upon entry into the security forces. Those plans include the introduction of a more detailed questionnaire for recruits and additional background checks for recruits with family ties to Pakistan or Iran. The council also announced plans to develop a training program for the Afghan security forces to prevent cultural misunderstandings with international counterparts, which seem to have been the cause of some insider attacks.

But these stopgap measures aren't likely to stem the increasing wave of green-on-blue violence. Clearly, a single, comprehensive package to prevent future insider attacks is lacking. While cooperation between Afghan and international actors exists from top to bottom, the extent, quality, and frequency of these measures varies greatly. A specific, overarching framework to coordinate the different steps and measures doesn't yet exist and the Pentagon, while clearly concerned, has not announced any plans to synchronize their efforts with their erstwhile allies under such a framework. Clearly, better coordination between the international coalition and its Afghan partners is necessary. To this end, small, dedicated insider attack task forces or cells could be established at the joint operation and intelligence fusion centers that are active in most provinces and districts where coalition forces maintain a permanent presence. But even these measures won't quickly stem the constant stream of attacks. 

Time, of course, is something neither the United States nor NATO has, as the 2014 deadline to end the combat mission approaches fast. With every insider attack, troop morale plummets further, despite reassurances to the contrary. The first cracks are starting to appear. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently hinted in an interview at the possibility of speeding up the timeline, though he backtracked on his comments a day later. Still, this episode hints at a certain nervousness at the highest levels.

The good news, if there is a glimmer in any of this, is that insider attacks are an issue where the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan security forces share a mutual interest, which cannot be said of many other issues at this stage of the long war. Here is an opportunity where both allies can benefit equally from mutual cooperation, reinforcing the much-needed trust that will allow for a successful hand-off of responsibility. But both sides need to realize that unilateral moves, such as imposing strict limitations on joint operations or the withdrawal of coalition advisers from Afghan ministries are counterproductive at best -- and outright dangerous at worst.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Kingdom of Silence and Humiliation

Looking back on life under the Assad dynasty.

They came for me on December 14, 2006. Plainclothes police carrying automatic weapons stormed into an Internet café in Damascus and grabbed me and a friend. They brought us in a car to the headquarters of the Syrian secret police. Around midnight they dragged me from my holding cell to the man I would come to know only as "Captain Wissam." He was a tall, dark-skinned officer. He looked at me and smiled. "We will release you in just a few minutes," he said. "You should be a good citizen." He then called a guard, whom he ordered to "take good care" of me.

Both men spoke with the distinctive accent of the Alawites; in fact, every single person in the prison did. The Alawite minority has effectively ruled Syria since 1963, and especially since President Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. So when you hear this accent, you pay attention. Ever since I can remember, this has been the way that the people with real power in our country speak.

They did not keep me for a few minutes. They threw me into a cell they called "the Suite." Measuring five feet by one and a half feet, it had no windows. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet and a hose attached to a faucet in the wall. The hose had two purposes: to keep the toilet clean and to provide me with drinking water. They told me I'd be staying for two years.

As it turned out, they let me go in 40 days. But that was more than enough. During that period, which I spent entirely in solitary confinement, I was interrogated constantly. I was tortured repeatedly, both psychologically and physically. (Forgive me, but I would prefer not to go into the details.) Every single day I feared death. When they released me, I staggered out onto the street, bearded and unkempt, wearing the same clothing I had on at the time of my arrest (though now everything was in tatters). Outside, everything seemed to be normal. People in the streets were walking around and enjoying their lives, smiling and laughing.

This was Syria under the Assads. I had drawn the attention of the secret police because of my membership in a student group that set out to publicize the human rights abuses of the regime. To engage in opposition meant questioning not only the government, but the entire version of reality that it had imposed upon us for decades.

Like millions of Syrians, I started my education at the age of six. My first day at school began with a greeting to our "Great Father," Hafez al-Assad. We sang songs in his praise. His picture was everywhere: in our notebooks, our textbooks, our classrooms, even in the bathroom. He was the one who protected us from the danger of the imperialists and Zionists. He was the one who regained the honor of the Arabs. At school we learned that Assad's cleverness had enabled Syria to win the Yom Kippur War, and we used to celebrate this day every year by holding up pictures of Assad marking the victory.

What we didn't know, of course, was that the regime had actually been defeated. They used to tell us that Bill Clinton said that he fears two things: death and Hafez Al-Assad. Once our teacher told us that an agent of a foreign enemy country had tried to assassinate Assad, but when Assad was in range, the agent couldn't see him on his rifle scope. The teacher told us that the hand of God intervened to stop the killing.

The portraits of the Great Father were always striking. When he smiled on TV, we felt intense love for our wonderful president. I was enrolled in an organization called "The Baath Party Pioneers." We dressed in uniforms and chanted every morning that we would stand behind our great leader to smash imperialism and Zionism. Just like any normal school kid, I conformed with the rest.

And why wouldn't I have? We thought of him as a supernatural being, a kind of god. I remember how once, in the fifth grade, we were wondering whether Assad really used the bathroom; the very thought was strange.

My first shock came at age nine. I was sitting next to my father watching the news on state-run TV, the only channel that we had. There was an interview with a Palestinian activist who ran an Arabic newspaper. I was very surprised. "Don't they live in tents?" I asked my father. "How can they print newspapers? How do the Israelis allow them to do that?" My father was very nervous and quickly replied, "Yes, they can have newspapers, but it's hard."

The person being interviewed was harshly critical of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. "Are the Israelis going to throw him in jail, like our neighbor?" I asked. "I don't know," my father replied curtly.

My neighbor was a political prisoner who belonged to a leftist movement. His children did not see him for seven years. He was released in 2004. When we asked why he was in prison, my family used to say, "He spoke badly about our Great Father, Hafez Al Assad."

The puzzle of my neighbor perplexed me. How could a country like Israel, portrayed as a ruthless enemy, tolerate criticism, while my neighbor rotted in prison controlled by the merciful father, Assad?

When Hafez's son died, the whole country dressed in black. We were not allowed to sing on the school bus due to public mourning. Every single person around me cried when he died. Posters all around us proclaimed that the son, Basil Al Assad, was a martyr. I was in fourth grade at the time, and I asked my teacher: "Didn't you teach us that martyrs are those who die while fighting the enemy?" "Yes," my teacher replied. "Then why do you call Basil a martyr when he died in a car accident?" The teacher was irate. She hit me hard and told me to bring my father. Because my school was a private Christian school, the problem was contained and the incident was not reported to state security.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and was succeeded by his other son, Bashar. There was talk of reforms, but that didn't amount to anything. One thing did change, though: The omnipresent pictures of Hafez were now joined by new pictures of Bashar. The old personality cult was now transferred to the son.

This was the environment of fear in which I lived until I was 19 years old. That was when I figured out why my neighbor was jailed, why Basil was called a martyr, and why countless people didn't know the whereabouts of their fathers because they had dared to criticize the regime. I learned about many of these things through the Internet, which exposed me to a range of information I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Some friends and I founded a group that we called "Syrian Youth for Justice." We tried to raise awareness about human rights abuses and to counter the pro-Assad Islamic and national sentiments that were flourishing on our college campus. Activists associated with Hezbollah were openly allowed to recruit students and conduct propaganda. Those, like us, who supported the cause of secularism and democracy were arrested and imprisoned. Some of my friends were sentenced to terms of five or seven years in jail.

Unsurprisingly, many in Syria blamed me and a small group of activists rather than the Assad dictatorship. The state had conditioned people to associate activism with treason. As a result, most people treated activists as dupes or spies of foreign powers. Many of my friends refused to talk to me after I was released, and some of my relatives were even afraid to call and make sure that I was safe. But I knew Syria was a kingdom of silence and humiliation. I never expected the waves of the Arab Spring to reach the Syrian beach.

After my release, I fled from Syria, and lived in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. After a while I was granted refugee status and came to the United States of America. I will never forget the email I got from Alyssa Teach, a political officer at the American embassy in Lebanon in 2008. "Hi, Ahed, are you still in Lebanon? Please let me know if everything is ok with you." Since the Syrian government was trying to find me, the American embassy in Beirut was helping me with my papers to apply for refugee status. She was worried that the pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon could get to us, particularly since Assad did not like the idea of an opposition presence in Lebanon.

That email may look normal to many, but for a young man who was raised to hate America and consider it the greatest enemy of the world, it was an incredible feeling. I was hiding from the regime of the "Great Father," while the "Great Enemy" was checking in on me and helping me.

I never expected that my fellow Syrians would rebel. Now they haven't only rebelled, they are fighting to the death without fear. Tens of thousands have been killed and yet young men will protest, fight the regime, and refuse to give up. Not everyone has been brainwashed. One of the first things that the protestors did was to destroy the omnipresent images of the two Assads -- a signal that the end of the regime is near. As far as most Syrians are concerned, the end can't come soon enough.

BULENT KILIC/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images