We told you that great stuff would be forthcoming from MG (R) Tim Haake, and Tim hasn’t disappointed us. This column is a tour-d’horizon of the green-on-blue issue, and it’s clear, concise, and contains all the publicly-released information in one shot. If you teach, train, write or opine on Afghanistan, you not only need to read this, but also to have its link close at hand — bookmarked, printed to PDF, nailed to the wall of your mud hut, in your Kindle. RTWT, of course, but then set it aside to refer to again until you have it fully internalized.
Proof positive of MG Haake’s genius (apart from his having done the Light Weapons Q Course back in the mists of time, like… er… certain bloggers) is the degree to which he agrees with us on this issue. The bad news is that it is a brilliant asymmetric operation by our enemy, reminding anyone who’s forgotten what the ancient pastimes of the Pathan are: goat-herding, horsemanship and treacherous warfare, and they’ve gone short on horses and let the boys watch the goats.
[T]he growing trend of green-on-blue murders is unmistakable and must be countered. In 2008 there were only two such attacks in all of Afghanistan. So far this year, there have been 31 attacks.
The latest attack occurred Sunday when an Afghan policeman turned his gun on NATO forces at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan, killing at least four troops. On Saturday, a man dressed in an Afghan military uniform shot and killed two British troops. The deaths brought to 51 the number of ISAF forces killed this year by fellow Afghan soldiers and policemen.
No troops have been spared; even the elite special forces have been struck. In April, for the first time, an Afghan commando killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier and an Afghan interpreter in Kandahar. Again in August, two Marine special operators were murdered by an Afghan police officer they were training.
Afghan sources say that all but one of these attacks were committed by Pashtuns. The sole green-on-blue attack committed by an ethnic Tajik occurred at Kabul Airport in April of last year when an Afghan pilot suffering from mental illness and drug addiction killed eight American soldiers and a NATO civilian contractor. A personal confrontation apparently preceded the slaughter.
As MG Haake points out, elements in Afghan culture make a man who feels slighted or insulted apt to act on his anger. (Regardless of cause, these attacks are always claimed by the Taliban). But this
He attributes the sudden growth to two causes: the Taliban’s discovering, perhaps fortuitously after an anger-based attack, that these killings are massively disruptive, and thereafter acting to ensure we’d have more of them; and our own self-inflicted press to introduce more Pashtuns to the ANA / ANP force over the last four or so years. (He doesn’t mention that the militia-like Local Police are the source of many of these attacks, and they are disproportionately Pashtun also. He does point out that the Pashtuns are the plurality ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the ethnic core of the Taliban).
The Taliban’s ability to infiltrate throughout the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Army (ANA) may have been facilitated by efforts to “homogenize” those forces in 2007 and 2008. Initially, many units in both forces were organized along regional or ethnic lines. Existing regional and ethnic divides were thus institutionalized – hardly a way to create national unity and lessen tensions among groups that have been at war for three decades .
The new plan was to create units that were roughly proportional to the ethnic makeup of the country: Pashtun at 42 percent, Tajik at 27 percent, Hazara and Uzbek at 9 percent each, Turkmen at 3 percent, and several smaller groups, including nomads, making up the remaining 10 percent.
It is believed that it was at this time that the Taliban were able to insert sleeper agents into every major ANA and ANP unit throughout the country. These agents are now being awakened and given missions designed to demoralize ISAF forces and drive a wedge of mistrust between trainer and trainee.
Here’s where it’s important to insert one small correction into MG Haake’s narrative. We weren’t there in 2008 but were there when the ANA was first standing up (indeed, rode along on its first combined — with US SF — offensive combat operation, Operation Roll Tide). The original intent of US and Afghan planners was for each Kandak (battalion) of the Afghan Army to have officers and men recruited in proportion to the ethnic groups of the land (the proportion of which was only estimated, thanks to the last reliable census having been made decades ago, in the time of the King or Daoud in the 1970s). The first two Kandaks were trained by USSF. The next few were trained by French trainers and wound up needing to be retrained from zero, thanks in part to turnover cause by desertion. And thereby hangs a tale.
The way the ANA wound up majority-minority was through, to coin a term, assortative desertion. Desertion was a massive problem with the early ANA battalions. Around 1000 men would be recruited — usually by putting the arm on the warlords loyal to the government to give up some of their troops. Put into a barracks and trained like western soldiers, the temptation to go over the hill was overwhelming for many of these proud men. (This was especially true of the French-trained units, but any units with conventional trainers, and even the SF-trained units, experienced this).
There was also great resistance of Tajik and especially Hazara leaders by the arrogant Pashtuns, who saw in this a violent breach in the natural order of things. Pashtuns always dominated the country and provided all its leaders except for one disastrous six-month regime in 1929, stories of which are known to every Afghan schoolboy and indeed, were known to every Afghan boy in 2002 when most of them had not been in school for a decade.
Tim Haake’s answer, and the command’s, is to double down on the social-engineering ideal of a national, ethnically representative, army and recruit new Pashtuns to replace the bugouts — just to vet them more carefully this time. Now, in a gun context we need to revisit the weakness of “background checks” in general some time, but in the Afghan war context we’d like to point out that the extremely thorough background checks including lifestyle polygraphing used by the FBI and CIA for intelligence officers have failed to catch numerous spies, and that’s in a wired society where everyone creates a paper trail from birth.
Exercise for the reader: you do background checks in a country where most people are illiterate, don’t know or care about their own birth date or year and so never write it down, have only one name — and the name is usually one of the 99 attributes of the prophet, meaning 15 million Afghan men and boys give you over a million possible true identities for any one name.
Thing is, we’ve been here before (“we” being Special Forces, and “before” being — among other places — Vietnam). What worked for us there was not imposing multi-culti ethnic blending on the underlying culture (where a dominant culture hated ethnic/racial minorities and the minorities, from their weak position, reciprocated — a very similat human terrain to Afghanistan, that way). What we did was organize the minorities into like-ethnicity Strike Forces, Mobile Strike Forces, Mobile Guerrilla Force, and Mike Forces, and write those names in history.
For the love of Mike (Force?), we have built an army, at least some units of which will not fight from the promising raw material of the most warlike men in the world. Think about that for a minute. With the best of intentions and all the power our nation granted us. Seriously — American politicians of both parties, and the American people, have given the generals what they wanted on this one. By and large, we’ve given the Afghan leaders what they’ve asked from us (only to see most of it wind up in numbered accounts in Credit Suisse, but that’s another column).
But of course, a Special Forces solution has been dismissed by the US Army and US military since late 2001, when the first Marine and Army conventional forces flooded the country, after 200 Special Forces and CIA guys had won the strategic victory. This influx of troops who were less mature, less tested, and vastly less culturally adaptable than the initial SF guerilla fighters immediately created intercultural resentments (but that’s another, other column).
The use of ethnic regiments in this region is nothing new, and neither is the exploitation of the warlike code of Pashtunwali (which bears deep study for anyone trying to understand Afghanistan, because it morphed from an ethnic code to a largely national one during the Russian occupation). The British Army (and earlier, Indian Army) raised regiments of single ethnic groups, and some of that tradition continues in the Indian and Pakistani armies today. For their part, the Pakistani Army trains and promotes many talented, aggressive young Pashtuns, forming a disproportionately large percentage of their officer corps (the ethnic group is divided by the Afghan border, which is another big stressor in regional geopolitics). Think about it: the Pakistanis, who say what you will about them live in this part of the world, don’t seem to expend much effort trying to make their military a pollster’s adjusted ethnic sample of the whole nation. What do they know that we don’t know?
A Pashtun Mike Force which was personally loyal to its SF leaders would have been a game changer in this war. (To a lesser extent, Tajik and Hazara and Uzbek formations would, also). Some things would have to be done very differently. The unit’s American leaders — not advisors — would need to be rotated more slowly and not all at once like a conventional unit, to maintain continuity of personal relationships. The relationships between Americans and Afghans are more important than the relationships between Americans that the unit-rotation policy has worked so well to maintain.
The CIA actually had such strike forces of Pashtuns and Hazaras (who were grateful for the recognition; traditionally, Pashtuns treat them with dismissive contempt) early in the war, and they were effective. What happened to them?
Well-meaning Americans with the same kind of ideas about modernizing and homogenizing Afghan culture that well-meaning Russians had had two and three decades earlier, that’s what. Chumps. Obviously to them a tribal-based unit would be inferior to a unit run like Sesame Street, where all ethnicities get along.
Afghanistan is a real place and Sesame Street a fictional one, but the reality is many Americans idealize the latter, and some of these pop-culture imperialists have been calling the shots.
To a tribal guy who’s never seen Sesame Street and would be a hard sell for its message of literacy, it’s a lot less obvious. So we keep pushing Afghans into uncomfortable multi-ethnic situations, and they react in a classically Afghan way.
They kill us.
(PS: Do read Tim’s column. And follow his other columns at the Washington Guardian. While we have expounded on a small point of disagreement, his is an important contribution to the national understanding of this issue).