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U.S. Faces Growing 'Insider Attacks' In Afghanistan

Aug 23, 2012
Originally published on August 23, 2012 5:55 pm

Gunmen wearing Afghan police and army uniforms have killed 40 U.S. and NATO troops so far this year, and the top American commander in Afghanistan says there is no single reason — and no simple solution.

Taliban infiltrators, disputes between NATO and Afghan security forces, and even the timing of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, are all factors, according to Gen. John Allen.

"We think the reasons for these attacks are complex," says Allen, who spoke by video link from Kabul on Thursday. Ten of the American deaths have come in just the past two weeks.

The Taliban have carried out some attacks by dressing in Afghan uniforms or by threatening Afghan soldiers and police and forcing them to kill Americans, the general said.

"Some of them, we do believe, are about infiltration, impersonation, coercion, and we think that's about 25 percent or so," he says.

Allen says other killings are the result of grudges or personal grievances between Afghan and U.S. troops. And he also laid some of the blame on the calendar. Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, landed in the summer this year, when the fighting in Afghanistan peaks.

"Ramadan fell in the middle of the fighting season, during some of the harshest time for the climate, compounded by the sacrifice associated with fasting," he says. "The combination of many of these particular factors may have come together in the past few weeks to generate the larger numbers."

Tightening Security

These deaths at the hands of Afghan believed to be partners have caused Allen to beef up security. U.S. troops are now required to carry loaded weapons at all times. And an armed American, called a Guardian Angel, accompanies U.S. officers to meetings with Afghans.

Some in the U.S. intelligence community think that the Taliban have carried out more than a quarter of these attacks. And the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has claimed his fighters are infiltrating the Afghan ranks.

If true, it might be actually be easier to deal with this, according to some analysts.

"I wish it were a Taliban infiltration problem because then it would be a largely counterintelligence problem," says Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. He says the U.S. and Afghans can reduce the Taliban threat with better background checks, for example.

Exum says it would be more troubling if the rise in insider attacks means that more and more Afghans are tiring of the American presence.

"If this represents a structural breakdown in relations between Afghan forces and their partners over 11 years of contact, that's a much more difficult problem to address," he says.

General Says Relations Are Good

Allen says the insider attacks don't signal a breakdown in relations and that U.S. and Afghan forces are working well together.

"Every single day in this battle space there are tens of thousands of interactions with the Afghans," he says. "And in the vast, vast majority of those instances and cases, the result of that interaction is a growing friendship and a deeper relationship."

The concern is that these insider attacks will only increase. That's what the Marines' top officer, Gen. Jim Amos, warned in a recent letter to Marines.

And U.S. troops could find themselves even more vulnerable to these attacks. By the end of next month, more than 20,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan. And large combat forces are being replaced by small American training teams, working with Afghan units.

"We're going to have to accept more risk, not less," says Exum, the former Army Ranger. "The only people that are really going to protect you from these attacks are the Afghans themselves."

That's what Allen thinks too.

"The closer the relationship, the more secure, ultimately, our troops will be," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

in Afghanistan, 10 Americans have died in the past two weeks from what are called insider attacks: That's when gunmen wearing Afghan police or army uniforms kill their American partners. So far this year, 40 U.S. and NATO troops have lost their lives in such attacks. Today, the top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, said stopping insider killings is one of his top priorities.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: General Allen says he's looking at each and every case of an insider attack, but he has no ready explanation why they're occurring and why the sudden increase.

GENERAL JOHN ALLEN: We think the reasons for these attacks are complex.

BOWMAN: The Taliban is responsible for some attacks by dressing in Afghan uniforms or by threatening Afghan soldiers and police and forcing them to kill Americans.

ALLEN: Some of them, we do believe, are about infiltration, impersonation, coercion, and we think that's about 25 percent or so.

BOWMAN: General Allen said other killings are the result of grudges or personal grievances between Afghan and U.S. troops. And he also laid some of the blame on the calendar and the fact that the holy month of Ramadan landed in the summer.

ALLEN: Ramadan fell in the middle of the fighting season, during some of the harshest time for the climate, compounded by the sacrifice associated with fasting. The combination of many of these particular factors may have come together during the last several weeks to generate the larger numbers that you point to.

BOWMAN: Those larger numbers of American dead at the hands of Afghans believed to be partners have caused General Allen to beef up security. U.S. troops are now required to carry loaded weapons at all times. And an armed American called a Guardian Angel accompanies U.S. officers to meetings with Afghans.

If General Allen thinks about a quarter of the attacks were launched by the Taliban, some in the U.S. intelligence community think the number is even higher. And Taliban leader Mullah Omar has claimed his fighters are infiltrating the Afghan ranks. Oddly, if true, that might be easier to deal with.

ANDREW EXUM: I wish it were a Taliban infiltration problem because then it would be a largely counterintelligence problem.

BOWMAN: That's Andrew Exum. He's a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. He says the U.S. and Afghans can reduce the Taliban threat with better background checks for example. Exum says it would be more troubling if the rise in insider attacks means that more and more Afghans are tiring of the Americans.

EXUM: Because if this represents a structural breakdown in relations between Afghan forces and their partners over 11 years of combat, that's a much more difficult problem to address.

BOWMAN: General Allen says the insider attacks don't signal a breakdown in relations and that U.S. and Afghan forces are working well together.

ALLEN: Every single day in this battle space, there are tens of thousands of interactions with the Afghans. And in a vast, vast majority of those instances and cases, the result of that interaction is a growing friendship and a deeper relationship.

BOWMAN: The concern is that these insider attacks will only increase. That's what the Marine's top officer General Jim Amos warned in a recent letter to Marines. And U.S. troops could find themselves even more vulnerable to these attacks. By the end of next month, more than 20,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan, and large combat forces are being replaced by small American training teams working with Afghan units.

EXUM: We're going to have to accept more risk, not less.

BOWMAN: Again, Andrew Exum, the former Army Ranger who now works as a defense analyst.

EXUM: The only people that are really going to be able to protect you from these types of attacks are the Afghans themselves.

BOWMAN: That's what General Allen thinks too.

ALLEN: The closer the relationship, the more secure ultimately our troops will be.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.