Wars are not always won through decisive battles; they are often contests in which any action breaking an adversary’s will to fight leads you one step closer to victory. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are targeting the will of the international community and the Karzai government by systematically infiltrating and undermining Afghan security forces.
These “green-on-blue” attacks — episodes in which Afghan soldiers and policemen turn their weapons on their coalition partners — are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a Taliban strategy with deep roots in Afghan history.
Since the beginning of the year there have been 31 green-on-blue attacks, resulting in 40 deaths. Brig. Gen. Günter Katz, a NATO spokesman, recently told reporters that these attacks were largely isolated events caused by personal grievances, stress and battle fatigue.
Yet if this trend continues, 2012 could see twice as many incidents as in 2011, despite the overall decline in the number of coalition troops in Afghanistan.
For the United States alone, these insider threats currently account for one third of all casualties. Soldiers are increasingly at risk of being killed by the partners they were sent to train and advise.
Increased green-on-blue attacks represent a seismic shift in the conflict. The insurgents are losing ground on the battlefield. Their roadside bombs and high profile attacks, though still deadly, no longer have the shock effect they once had. Under increased pressure, groups like the Taliban are looking for low-cost ways to attack the coalition and Afghan security forces. Insider threats offer insurgents a means to preserve their combat power while pushing international forces toward the exit.
Green-on-blue attacks drive a wedge between foreign advisers and their Afghan partners. Infiltration breaks down trust. The attacks leave foreign advisers weary and erode the quality of training. Afghan forces wither as commanders wonder who they can trust in their own ranks. The population is left with an impression that their army is a compromised force. The war of wills becomes a fight to survive.
The Taliban do not need to win on the battlefield. They just need foreign countries and Afghans to decrease their support for the government. Driving a wedge between partners and destroying trust realizes this objective. The enemy is adapting out of necessity.
Furthermore, infiltration and subterfuge are enduring aspects of the Afghan way of war. Afghan history is replete with tales of intrigue and subterfuge in which an adversary is hollowed from within and grand armies wither away.
The assassination of Nader Shah Afshar, shah of Persia 1688 to 1747, by members of his inner circle led his close confident, Ahmad Shah Durrani, to flee with loyal forces and rally Afghan tribes in Kandahar where they formed predecessor to the modern Afghan state, the Durrani Empire. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) saw the British backing Shah Shuja in retaking power from his brother, Mohammed Shah. In the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), an engagement frequently referenced in Taliban propaganda, the British suffered from desertions by Afghan troops.
The same trend is evident in contemporary Afghan military history. Mass desertions by Soviet-allied Afghan Army units were not uncommon during the anti-Communist jihad. During the Afghan civil war, factions were continually shifting sides to gain an advantage.
The Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum switched sides three times. In 1996, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar went from battling the Tajik-led Northern Alliance to joining their ranks and fighting the Taliban. Karzai turned several pro-Taliban tribal leaders in seizing Kandahar with coalition support in 2001.
Read against this historical backdrop, treating green-on-blue attacks as isolated incidents does not acknowledge either the gravity of the situation or Taliban strategy. Insurgents are eroding Afghan national security forces from within.
An adaptive adversary is deliberately targeting the hard-won bounds of trust between Afghan and coalition partners. The first step to treating this disease is diagnosing the problem.
Benjamin Jensen is assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. An officer in the Maryland National Guard, he served in Afghanistan.