Afghanistan: A Model for Insider Attacks and Infiltration

4 MINS READSep 27, 2012 | 10:29 GMT
A U.S. soldier with the International Security Assistance Force (R) talks to an Afghan national police officer

For much of the past decade, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have commanded much of the U.S. military's attention. But as those conflicts gradually end, the United States increasingly is engaging other areas throughout the world, such as Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, and Washington will try to enhance its counterinsurgency and counterterrorism advisory presence in those areas accordingly.

With that presence comes the possibility of insider attacks, often referred to as green-on-blue attacks, which occur when an indigenous soldier, for whatever reason, attacks the occupying military. In some instances, these attacks stem from personal or cultural disputes. Other times these attacks result from infiltration, the process by which an enemy combatant joins an occupying or domestic military for ulterior reasons (or is corrupted once already in). The ultimate objective of infiltration-related insider attacks is to divide foreign and local troops and hasten the foreigners' withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan showed just how effective these types of attacks could be and how badly they could undermine missions, like NATO's, that focus on training and joint force.  

Emboldened by the success of green-on-blue attacks, insurgents in other countries may model their tactics after those used in Afghanistan. However, the security situation in Afghanistan is so unique that it would be difficult to replicate in insurgencies elsewhere. But given the attacks' effectiveness, they must be accounted for by an occupying force working side-by-side with an indigenous force.

Notably, infiltration and insider attacks are not new trends; there have been instances of insider attacks and infiltrations across the world. For example, in November 2009, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and injured 42 others at an army base in Fort Hood, Texas. In May 2012, a soldier with the Yemeni Central Security forces blew himself up during a military parade rehearsal in an apparent assassination attempt against the Yemeni defense minister. While the defense minister survived, roughly 100 soldiers were killed. In any case, the attack failed to capture U.S. attention and thus failed to affect the training assistance mission in Yemen. Indeed, these more recent attacks typically have not been as severe or as frequent as those in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: A Model For Insider Attacks and Infiltration

Afghanistan: A Model For Insider Attacks and Infiltration

But even if the successes of physical attacks are sometimes marginal, infiltration of a local military is still an effective tactic. In fact, attacks against the military are not always the sole objective of infiltrators. In addition to assassination attempts, infiltrators also can supply information and intelligence about the foreign militaries, and they can damage morale and create suspicion among the rank and file.

The dangers of having an army riddled with insurgent sympathizers or colluders are apparent in the ongoing Syrian conflict. The Syrian regime was never able to unleash the full force of its military on the rebels due to concerns over the troops' loyalty. The regime had to rely extensively on its elite forces and Shabiha paramilitary force to carry out most of the arduous clearing operations.

The Afghan Model

Over the past decade, few places have seen as many insider attacks as Afghanistan, which in some ways is ideally suited for such tactics. Culturally, Afghanistan and the United States differ drastically, so it should come as no surprise that their military cultures likewise differ. In fact, some customs common in the U.S. military are considered grievously insulting to Afghan troops. For example, platoon sergeants frequently use vulgarities when speaking to recruits — something Afghan troops deplore. That is not to say that vulgarities directly precipitate physical retribution. Rather, customs that seem to disparage local troops can create discontent, which can lead to insider attacks if nurtured by further perceived insults.

Other factors in addition to cultural differences facilitate insider attacks. Literacy rates are low in Afghanistan, and institutional recordkeeping has been scarce since the 1970s due to a breakdown in institutional infrastructure and bureaucracy. Conducting comprehensive background checks on recruits in such conditions is extremely difficult, making it relatively easy for insurgents to infiltrate the Afghan military to carry out insider attacks.

Intuitively, there is a significant NATO presence in Afghanistan and that means there are ample opportunities for insurgents to attack foreign troops. Unlike Russia during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, NATO coordinates closely with the Afghan National Security Forces — the alliance participates in training and joint patrols, for example. NATO recently has prioritized such operations so that the Afghan National Security Forces can learn to perform their duties adequately once NATO withdraws its troops. Naturally, this leads to more troop interaction, which in turn creates more opportunities for insider attacks.

The uniqueness of Afghanistan is apparent when one compares it to other countries with similar security environments. In Yemen and Somalia, for example, the potential for insider attacks exists, but the sparse interaction of foreign troops at the most basic levels of military operations impedes insurgents' efforts to carry out insider attacks against U.S. personnel in the country. There simply are not that many foreign trainers, and they tend to be assigned to the local military's elite units.

Insurgents around the world likely will learn from what is currently taking place in Afghanistan and Syria, and they may seek to mimic some of these insider attacks through government and military infiltration. But given Afghanistan's singularity, replicating the success of insider attacks in Afghanistan will prove difficult.

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