The rise in the number of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks – the killing of NATO soldiers and advisers by their Afghan counterparts in the army and police – has led many to call for the early withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, arguing that they are an indication of the failure to transfer security to Afghan forces.
And it has been an alarming trend: in 2007 there were 2 such recorded attacks. By last year, that number had increased to 37, and more than 50 NATO troops died as a result. While those attacks are an obstacle to a seamless transition, as they damage the relationship between advisers and trainees, what they are not is a sign that NATO’s transition plans are a failure.
Insider attacks, while tragic, do not have longer-term implications – that is, they do not by themselves suggest that the Afghan National Security Forces are not ready to assume command. While the rate of almost an attack every week represents a serious threat possibly rooted in religious extremism, it doesn’t indicate a systemic failure. Not that there isn’t a systemic failure in the Afghanistan mission – it’s just not found in these attacks. They might provide an excuse for withdrawal, but not a reason.
Yes, it may be true that those transition plans are failing, but not because of the attacks. There are other, more serious flaws in the transition plan.
First, the International Stabilization and Assistance Force (ISAF) – the NATO-led multinational mission in Afghanistan – is not adequately equipping the Afghan forces to successfully mount a continued counterinsurgency campaign. For example: there were plans to provide the Afghan National Security Forces with close air support aircraft that are particularly suited for use by the Afghan Air Force: less expensive than jet aircraft, able to fly from unimproved runways, and able to loiter for hours over a target site.
But that contract was canceled due to reported irregularities in the bidding process, and delivery of any kind of feasible alternative won’t take place for years. Lacking this capability leaves Afghan forces highly vulnerable to defeat in engagements with the insurgency in the future, when ISAF airpower will no longer be on call.
Even if the National Security Forces was to receive all of the equipment it needs to successfully engage and defeat a determined insurgency, they are ill-equipped to provide the logistical support needed to use that equipment effectively. Despite repeated press releases detailing how well the Afghans are doing, even ISAF acknowledges that the ANSF aren’t ready to support themselves in this area, thanks to NATO decisions to train the Afghans to fight first, and figure out the rest later.
As the latest report of the United States’ Department of Defense to Congress says, “Improving the logistical capabilities of the ANA has been the main focus… despite this focus, [NATO] anticipates that the ANA will continue to require assistance with logistics and acquisition processes beyond December 2014.”
Without adequate logistics capabilities, one outcome would be that the ANSF would be forced to retreat from remote outposts vital to securing terrain from the insurgency, weakening an already unstable country.
Finally, if everything worked as planned – the Afghan forces received all the equipment they needed, and knew how to support that equipment via a functional logistics system – the ANSF are still desperately short of people to actually use that equipment. That’s due to (in the case of the Afghan army) a 30 per cent annual attrition rate: from September 2011 to September 2012, according to ISAF’s own statistics, 54,040 ANA personnel were lost to attrition, which is military jargon for “stopped showing up to work.”
Couple that with inordinately low retention numbers, and the Afghan army needs to continually recruit new personnel. High turnover means no continuity in junior leadership, something an army trying to defend itself can ill afford.
Yes, “insider attacks” are a problem: every “successful” attack means a failure in intelligence, vetting, and a breakdown in the basic trust between advisers and trainees. While some of these attacks can be attributed to religious zealotry, something that can never be fully countered, many of them are likely carried out by insurgent operatives who should have been stopped by internal security processes before successfully carrying out their attacks.
But they are not a sign that the withdrawal plan is failing. That plan will fail, and miserably, for reasons that have less to do with the insurgency, and more to do with ISAF’s nearsighted hubris in its approach to Afghanistan and that country’s fighting forces. Soon it’s going to be up to the Afghans, with their inadequate equipment, inadequate training, and inadequate numbers of personnel to defend this country on their own, a task for which they will be woefully unprepared.
Gary Owen is a Kabul-based civilian who works on development projects. He blogs at It’s Always Sunny and Kabul and appears on Twitter as @ElSnarkistani.