Dec 17, 2012

The Root Cause of Green on Blue Attacks

Note: I published this article first on openDemocracy

‘Green on blue attacks' is the name given to a growing series of incidents where seemingly rogue Afghan security forces turn their guns on their NATO counterparts. These insider attacks have led to the deaths of more than 50 NATO troops since the beginning of 2012. Subsequently, NATO responded in September by halting joint operations with Afghan security forces to prevent further attacks, following the deaths of 6 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops over one weekend.
With the increased frequency of green on blue attacks, the topic has become an important subject for western media. It is usually portrayed as a religious and cultural problem in which Afghan troops react to perceived insults by American troops’ behavior. Others cite Taliban infiltration into Afghan security forces. But after talking to various Afghan journalists and writers who have been covering this issue for the past decade, I realized that the reasons behind these attacks go much deeper than cultural and religious incompatibilities or suspected Taliban infiltration. Rather, the motivation behind the green on blue attacks has developed over the past half decade of NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Towards a basic understanding

The basic cultural characteristics of Afghans are based on a hierarchy of respect and care for family, clan and tribe. Considering this simple fact, it is very easy to understand why Afghan police soldiers would become rogue and turn their guns against NATO troops. Most of those rogue soldiers became lethal enemies after losing a member of their families through NATO airstrikes. If someone is killed as a result of an accidental NATO bombing, it is likely that he or she has family left behind. The family’s pride is wounded and someone in the family must bring the pride back.

Over the past years, most who joined the Taliban were those brothers and fathers with wounded pride. In 2008, I went to Helmand province for two weeks to teach blogging and online journalism to young writers and poets. On the second day I was teaching, two missiles hit the governor’s house, just a block away. One of them landed in our backyard and shattered the windowpanes.

Four days later, on Friday night, some of those participants of the workshop gathered in a small party a few blocks away from the governor’s house. I was worried about the missile attacks from such close proximity but one of the participants told me “Don’t be afraid, the Taliban will not launch their missiles tonight.” He had asked his uncle, who was one of the commanders of the Taliban, not to shell the city. His uncle had lost two members of his family in a NATO bombing and now he joined the Taliban to take revenge and restore his family’s pride.

In 2009, Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, with the help of NATO, launched an ambitious program to double the size of its army. There were not enough volunteers in Kabul, so the Afghan Army recruiters recklessly directed their efforts toward young, desperate and jobless Afghans, who were gathering in roundabouts (Afghans call it “Chawk”) in search of work in different towns. These young people were promised generous compensation. These places became the main targets for recruitment of Taliban infiltrators; many of those with wounded pride went there looking for an opportunity to become martyrs by killing infidels in their land.

Another reason motivating some members of the Afghan police forces to turn against NATO troops is the continuation of night raids. During these operations, NATO troops go door to door looking for insurgents and explosive devices. However, despite some benefits, such as reducing insurgent attacks, these night raids have caused more harm than good.

In September 2011, the Christian Science Monitor reported that by one estimation, the number of night raids rose to 40 daily throughout Afghanistan, meaning approximately 14,600 night raids took place that year. In other words, 14,600 families have been displaced, harassed, had their windows and doors broken, and their belongings thrown out. If we consider that each of those 14,600 affected families has at least 7 members, then the total number harmed comes to 102,200 individual Afghan civilians per year.

According to ISAF Data, night raids have killed over 1,500 Afghan civilians in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011. These night raids have been one of NATO’s most controversial tactics; from President Karzai’s perspective it has been disrespectful to Afghan culture and has undermined the legitimacy of his government.

It will only get worse

Night raids by reckless NATO troops and the resulting civilian casualties have contributed to the problems that gradually motivate green on blue attackers. These attackers are not necessarily linked to the Taliban; most of time, they act independently, inspired by their need to bring pride back to their families. The green on blue attacks are likely to increase, given continuing civilian deaths and injuries, such as the airstrike in September that killed 8 women and injured others, including children.

Moreover, with the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. and international troops in 2014, earlier than anticipated, desperation and hopelessness are mounting among Afghans. To them, foreign troops have not helped their country as much as promised, adding to the tendency of rogue Afghan soldiers to look at their foreign comrades as enemies. For now, halting the joint operations of NATO forces with Afghan forces is the only option to avoid the green on blue attacks.