One Eye on Our Allies: The Overdue Talk About Afghan Insider Attacks
When I close my eyes and think back to the year I spent in Afghanistan, the more sinister recollections have been somewhat sanitized, like an R-rated film edited for broadcast. The scenes are still there, but less poignant—they don’t get air the way they did when they were fresh in my mind. I don’t allow them to.
As the 2014 deadline to end America’s longest war approaches, the attacks on U.S. and NATO advisers at the hands of their Afghan protégés have become a new component in the conversation about what’s really going on there. But I’m surprised there hasn’t been more talk about so-called green-on-blue incidents or insider attacks already.
I should know. I was an adviser deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. My occupation as a Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (a combat medic) had me working side by side with Afghan National Army soldiers, training their medics, mentoring their battalion surgeon, and helping to stand up their troop medical clinic. Early in my tour, I was well aware that any of the soldiers we were training could at any time turn their weapons on me and my fellow advisers.
The first indication that the Afghans we were training posed a potential threat came on a fiercely cold morning in early 2007 in Darulaman. Before we set out on a routine convoy with our Afghan counterparts, we had to line them up shoulder to shoulder and collect their cellphones one at a time. We did this—it was already standard operating procedure—because our leadership feared that the Afghan soldiers might give away our position to enemy fighters.
I was shocked, and conflicted, when I first learned of this policy.
On the one hand, I wanted desperately for our mission to be a success. I dreamed of a day when Afghanistan could stand on its own and fight off the Taliban or al Qaeda or whomever else would attempt to hold dominion over their sovereign land.
On the other hand, I was not at all impressed by the Afghan soldiers. They were lazy, unprofessional, and always late to formation or absent entirely. They could not be relied upon to do their jobs. And it was impossible to know where their allegiances truly lay.
And that was before I learned about an Afghan soldier who had turned his AK-47 assault rifle on two U.S. Army soldiers as they were leaving a compound. He had been guarding the outer checkpoint of the base, and opened fire on the soldiers as they exited in their Humvees. The men he killed were U.S. Army Master Sgt. Wilberto Sabalu Jr., age 36, and Col. James W. Harrison, 47. According to iCasualties.org, a website that documents the fatalities of U.S. and coalition forces in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their deaths are classified as “Hostile—hostile fire—small-arms fire.” While the site does not distinguish insider attacks from any other type of attack by the enemy, coalition forces do count these attacks separately—but until earlier this year they’d kept the reported number low by only accounting for those incidents in which a U.S. or coalition soldier was killed. So if an Afghan turned his weapon on us and managed only to wound a soldier or missed altogether, that wouldn’t make the count.
The incident I heard about took place on May 5, 2007, right in the middle of my yearlong combat tour. It was a main topic of conversation for soldiers at Camp Pul-e-Charkhi, the base where the attack occurred and where I would frequently be—but it hardly made the press back home.
From then on, I was hypervigilant. I did my job and trained my guys, but I never took my eyes off them. When we went on foot patrols in the nearby villages that surrounded FOB Mehtar Lam in eastern Afghanistan, I followed the Afghan soldiers with my eyes, sometimes to a fault. Watching them became a distraction. It was impossible to focus on them while keeping an eye out for IEDs and enemy fighters at the same time.
The Afghan soldiers themselves were not all bad, of course. At times we would tell jokes or exchange gifts. And we communicated with them through Afghan interpreters who were as much a part of our team as any of us. During my tour, I cannot recall a single time an interpreter was asked to turn over his cellphone. We trusted them. Their knowledge of English had opened up doors to them that were sealed off to most Afghans, and so they learned as much of the language from us as they could.
This year alone, there have been 53 coalition members killed in Green-on-Blue attacks, the majority of them American servicemen. The Taliban has claimed credit for many of the attacks, in part to claim when coalition forces finally withdraw that they forced that to happen. Coalition leaders have insisted that the attacks have mostly resulted from personal and cultural grievances rather than systemic infiltration, though the increase in their frequency as the withdrawal date ticks closer suggests otherwise.
Whatever the cause of the attacks, U.S. and NATO forces have suspended many joint operations as a result of them, and have assigned so-called Guardian Angels—soldiers whose job it is to watch the Afghans during training and operations, and to fire on them if they appear ready to strike. Relieved of other duties, they can keep both eyes on our purported allies.
Looking back through the mental edits I’ve made since leaving Afghanistan, I think: if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003, reallocating valuable men, equipment, and resources that had been earmarked for Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom and its goal of bringing this nation of tribes into a new era of modern statehood might have had a fighting chance.
When the U.S. invaded in October 2001 after a relatively brief series of skirmishes with al Qaeda and Taliban loyalists, the country was safe for Westerners. U.S. and NATO forces could walk around in cities like Kandahar without weapons or body armor. Today that would be a death sentence.
But with the American people tired of what’s now our nation’s longest war, and neither presidential candidate discussing it seriously or at length, it seems that a few more of our men and women will be cut down by our allies before our exit brings this conversation to a close.