Last month, the mayor of North Ogden, Utah was shot to death in Afghanistan. Major Brent Taylor was a member of the Utah National Guard and on his fourth Afghanistan deployment. Maj. Taylor is also the seventh NATO soldier to be killed by a green on blue (insider attack) in the past five months.
This past June, three US soldiers were killed and one wounded in a green on blue attack in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. Last July, U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Maciel was killed by an Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) member in Tarin Kowat, the capital of Uruzgan province. On September 3rd, the Command Sergeant Major of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, Timothy Bolard was shot and killed by an ANSF member in Logar province. Two weeks ago, a Czech Army corporal Tomáš Procházka was killed at the Shindand airbase in Herat.
Technically these are insider attacks, not green on blue incidents. The use of color to describe Afghan and American units reflects how the military depicts them on their tactical maps; Americans are blue, Afghans are green, the Taliban (and ISIS) are red. A green of blue incident would describe a friendly fire event event that was accidental.
During the current calendar year the United States has lost ten men in Afghanistan, seven of whom were killed by insider attacks. In 2017 the U.S. lost six men in combat, all of them fighting ISIS-K in Nangarhar province, but five of those six men were reportedly killed in insider attacks by ANDSF troops.
In response to repose to the dramatic increase in insider attacks back in 2012, the DoD announced several steps to mitigate the problem in the future. The introduction of an enhanced (8-step) vetting process was one, the introduction of guardian angels another. Enhanced screening is hard to do in Afghanistan when you consider your average Afghan has no idea how old he is, let alone his date of birth. There are few birth records or other civil documents to consult (although that has changed and improved over time in some places); the metrics we would use for an 8-step vetting process are not applicable to Afghans. Afghanistan is developing the infrastructure that could provide dependable public records, but it will take time for that effort to mature.
Records and procedures are not as big a problem as the nature of the government in Kabul. It is corrupt and has done little to earn the trust or confidence of the Afghan people. This is from a report by Global Security.org on corruption in Afghanistan:
As measured by Transparency International, the perception of corruption is in Afghanistan quite dire, declining sharply since 2005 (score of 25) to the abysmal 2012 score of 8. The World Bank’s Control of Corruption and Ease of Doing Business also consistently rank Afghanistan as the lowest and thus most corrupt country in the region. The World Bank has only measured 4 reforms in Afghanistan since 2010 that affect the ease of doing business. Levels of corruption in Afghanistan appear to be accelerating more rapidly than efforts to combat it.
There are too many places and too many ways nefarious actors who can get what they need with well placed bribes. Until that changes, enhanced screening will be easily spoofed.
Guardian Angels — soldiers who stand-by with weapons at the ready during all interactions with ANDSF, is a solid response that introduces enough friction into an insider attack that it will impede some attackers. But the tactic does have limitations best demonstrated by the diagram below of the famous OODA Loop.
OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act and was developed by a brilliant Air Force pilot, Col. John Boyd, as a decision making tool for fighter pilots. It became famous because it applies to everything — gunfighting, strategic planning, business, emergency medicine….etc.
When a Guardian Angel detects someone who may be a threat, he has to orient on him to decide he’s a threat; then he needs to decide if he ought to shoot that threat, and then present his weapon, get a quick sight picture, and shoot him. Running through those steps takes time, so in the cases where the inside attacker wasn’t detected until the attacker started presenting his gun, the Guardian Angel is starting from a significant disadvantage.
It’s important to understand this because the facts are: there is not much we can do that will drive the insider attack numbers to zero. Guardian Angels introduce friction into the insider attack equation, which is good, but they cannot be expected to stop every single attack.
In 2012, American commanders estimated that 90% of the attacks were due to cultural differences and personal enmity. That figure dd not withstand scrutiny; a 2013 study of insider attacks by Austin Long attributed 38% of the insider attacks to personal enmity. His study attributed 14% of the attacks to Taliban co-option, an additional 6% to Taliban infiltration, and the remaining 38% were still under investigation and classified.
There is a massive cultural chasm between westerners and Afghans that was well documented in contemporaneous news reporting. Afghans knew that the habitual use of the epitaph “MF’er” by American troops (who seem unable to communicate without the use of the F word) was not the same as saying Kos-e madarit in Dari (an invitation to have sex with your mother), which is considered the gravest of grave insults in that language. The Afghans got over things like that for a reason: the Americans (and NATO allies) took care of them better than their own chain of command.
NATO units with Afghans attached routinely sent their own staff officers to Kabul to pry loose their Afghan soldiers’ cold weather and field gear. NATO also flew them to level 1 trauma centers when they were wounded. Local NATO commanders made sure they had excellent hot chow, plenty of drinking water, ammunition, ensuring the Afghan soldiers operating with them were paid correctly and on time. It was NATO commanders who made sure the Afghan soldiers got their leave when due and they organized C-130 flights to Kabul and other cities to get those troops home. They set up reception centers at those airports so the troops, many of whom are illiterate, had NCOs from their unit to get them mustered, fed, and ready to go when their plane arrived to pick them up. All of these steps drove retention numbers up, but now those numbers are down and one might suspect there are Kandaks who are not being looked after like they were while attached to NATO.
Here’s an example of the Afghan chain of command in action that is, quite frankly, hard to believe. From the opening paragraph of this Wall Street Journal article published on September 3, 2011:
KABUL—American officers deployed as mentors in Afghanistan’s main military hospital discovered a shocking secret last year: Injured soldiers were routinely dying of simple infections and even starving to death as some corrupt doctors and nurses demanded bribes for food and the most basic of care.
Some insider attacks were obviously caused by cultural differences and personal enmity, but those days are long gone. What is happening now has some complex roots that is adversely impacting our reputation in the region.
Take the problem of blue on green incidents where ANDSF members are unintentionally killed by NATO troops. In 2002, the Kandahar Governor’s compound was the scene of an attempted assassination of President Karzai, which was remarkable because someone snapped a good picture of the SEALs who were protecting Karzai, just seconds after they had dispatched his assailant.
Unfortunately the SEALs also took down one the governors guards and an unidentified civilian. Both of these Afghans rushed the attacker, the guard with gun apparently blazing. The governor at the time, Gul Agha Sherzai, was hit in the neck (the wound was minor); one of the SEAL’s also sustained a minor wound. As you can imagine, this was sheer bedlam that unfolded in mere seconds. Look how controlled the SEALs appear in the picture above — the guys are obviously pros. Killing the assailant and two men who were rushing him was the correct response; the SEALs are protecting a President and they had to eliminate the threat.
But look at how the incident is described in Wikipedia:
On 5 September 2002, a young bystander leaned to say something to Hamid Karzai, who was sitting in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, and then all of a sudden U.S. Special Forces assigned to protect Karzai began shooting at the bystanders. Those killed in the shooting were two civilians and one security personnel of Gul Agha Sherzai. The Americans gave a different account, alleging that it was an assassination attempt on Karzai and that one of its members was wounded.
Managing perceptions is difficult to do on the internet these days; the account above is nonsense easily disproved by multiple contemporary reports in the media. Worse yet, it’s in Wikipedia which may not be a primary source for experienced journalists — but it is for the rest of the world.
Perception management was clearly a factor in the incident where Czech Army corporal Tomáš Procházka who was killed by an Afghan Commando, who was enraged at a rumor sweeping Afghan social media of America involvement in the death of Gen. Raziq. Rumors of the United States and Pakistan collaborating to perpetrate some sort of disaster on the Afghan people sweep through the population all the time. It is difficult to convince people raised in isolated countries like Afghanistan that the United States, a country that put men on the moon, is incapable of solving their security problems. There is nothing shocking our unusual about the Raziq rumor.
The killing of Maj. Brent Taylor seems to have little to do with perception management.
In the picture above, Maj. Taylor is standing next to an officer from the Afghan Ktah Khas (KKH), which is Afghanistan’s national-level counterterrorism unit. Think of them as Afghanistan’s Delta Force; they are a small elite battalion that depends on their American mentors for targeting and intelligence support as well as helicopter and fixed wing close air support.
Maj. Taylor was on his fourth tour; his knowledge of Afghan culture and customs would have been detailed and impressive. Cultural differences and personal enmity seems an unlikely motivation in this case. He was reportedly killed at Camp Integrity in Kabul, which serves as secure base housing elite Afghan units. The most probably scenario in this attack is a Red on Blue attack — the shooter was either Taliban or co-opted by the Taliban. Again, this is speculation on my part, but it seems the most likely explanation.
The Taliban always take the credit for these attacks, but in the past most of their claims lacked credibility. Those claims now appear credible and even if they aren’t, the perception battle on the Afghan street favors the Taliban because they are out in the countryside living with the people and have influencers who can stoke the flames of internet rage over social media propaganda.
It is obvious that the Taliban are trying to cause an unbridgeable rift between NATO forces and the ANSDF. As bad as this problem is for American troops, it is and has always been worse for the Afghans. Check this out:
I copied the table above from the report Dress Like Allies, Kill Like Enemies by Javid Ahmad. Look at the number of casualties the Afghans who have suffered from insider attacks. And those numbers don’t include the spectacular attacks the Taliban have launched by entering ANSDF bases dressed in stolen uniforms and driving stolen Afghan military vehicles. The attack on the ANA base in Mazar-e Sharif in 2017, resulting in the deaths of over 100 soldiers is a perfect example.
It is safe to assume that a majority of the insider attacks directed at ANSDF members were by Taliban infiltrators or Taliban co-opted ANDSF members. The Taliban is not only trying to break the bonds of trust between NATO and the ANSDF troops, it is and has been attacking the internal cohesion of Afghanistan’s security forces themselves. So what can be done about this disturbing trend? Not much.
In 2012, at the height of the insider attack problem, there were 44 attacks by ANSDF troops. The total ANSDF strength that year was 327,037. On a percentage basis, 0.0000134% of ANSDF members turned on their American trainers. Despite the enhanced screening programs, the assassin who shot Gen. Raziq last month was a Taliban plant who had no trouble getting a spot on the Governor’s guard force. The ability of the Taliban to slip a teenage assassin onto the Governor of Kandahar’s guard force is the price of endemic corruption. From the article linked above:
The other guards knew him as Gulbuddin. But his real name, American officials said, was Raz Mohammed, and about six months before the attack he had trained with the Taliban in Pakistan. After the attack, the insurgents put out a video of his training, including target shooting.
Sometime in August, he had arrived in Kandahar and enlisted among the elite guards of the provincial governor. One of his cousins, Basir Ahmad, who had been a guard of the governor for nearly a year, vouched for him, helping him to skip a background check.
“He was quiet — he would rarely say a word,” said Mohammed Nasim, one of the governor’s guards who shared the barracks with him. “But Basir Ahmad would always be on his phone.” (Mr. Ahmad fled the compound 30 minutes before the shooting, officials said.)
The use of Insider Attacks is an effective tactic for the Taliban that yields unlimited propaganda value for a small investment of manpower. These attacks are targeting both the ANDSF and the NATO forces mentoring them and it seems unlikely that every future attack will be uncovered and stopped before it is executed. There is no other option for NATO except to press on and accept the casualties.
There are going to be more insider attacks in the years ahead, but I don’t think the number of attacks are scalable. The Taliban has always known casualties, especially from insider attacks, are our center of gravity. They have never been able to capitalize on that knowledge and they have paid dearly when they tried. I don’t believe the Taliban has the ability to surge the number of insider attacks and as long as they don’t, I don’t think they will impact continued support in the West for remaining in Afghanistan.
Still, it’s a damn bitter pill to swallow. Let’s hope we don’t have to swallow too many more.