In Afghanistan, the line separating an ally from an enemy has often been blurred. On March 26th, two British soldiers were shot by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform. A few weeks earlier, on February 20th, two Albanian soldiers were killed by a man in an Afghan police uniform. Since 2001, more than 50 members of the international forces have been shot by Afghan forces. These “turncoat” attacks have become a worrying phenomenon for international forces and raise questions about the efficiency of the U.S.-led coalition’s exit strategy, namely the training of Afghan forces.
Although the number of turncoat attacks might seem small compared to the nearly 2900 Coalition casualties, its impact tends to have devastating consequences both for the morale of the troops and for public opinion back home. Shortly after four French soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan soldier on January 20th, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that all training operations were momentarily suspended in Afghanistan, and that French troops would be leaving the country earlier than originally planned. In fact, opinion polls following the attack suggested that a majority of French people wanted their troops to be called back home.
“It makes sense to stay in Afghanistan if you think you’ve got a wiling partner working with you,” says Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security and former U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But it’s almost impossible if you have a partner who’s actually killing you.”
If public opinion was strongly affected by these attacks, it may be because the motives behind the killings are not known. Investigations often bring no answers. For instance, Ezatullah Wazirwal, who killed six U.S. soldiers in November 2010, is believed to have been recruited by the Taliban, but it was never proven. Abdul Saboor, responsible for the French soldiers’ deaths, is said to have been angered by the video of the U.S. soldiers urinating on dead bodies, but there was no further explanation.
“These turncoat attacks are a symptom of a growing distrust between the Afghan population and the international community,” explains Erica Gaston, program officer for Afghanistan at the Open Society Foundations. Wolfgang Danspeckgrube, founding director of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at Princeton University, remembers that when he first went to Afghanistan in 2002, Americans were welcome “with open arms” but six years later “people compared us to the Soviets.” This general distrust comes from a limited training in cultural nuances and a mutual disdain among Afghans and U.S. coalition advisors, explains Matthew Dearing, a research associate from the Center on Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.
These turncoat attacks may also be triggered by the continual and very unpopular loss of civilian lives over the years, amounting to more than 11,800 Afghan lives. Although most deaths were attributed to Taliban attacks rather than by international military operations, it is sometimes hard for the Afghan people to distinguish one from the other.
However, in some cases these turncoat attacks go beyond a mutual distrust between Afghan and international forces: it could also be the consequence of Taliban infiltrations. “This is a deliberate tactic being used by the Taliban,” says Exum. “It seems focused on exhausting the patience of the third party counter-insurgents.” Not only does it prove to be an efficient military tactic, but also it is a powerful political one. “The Taliban is figuring out that it is pretty effective to get the domestic public to question why we are in Afghanistan,” says Andrew Wilder, Director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.
In order to leave Afghanistan, international forces need to help create a capable Afghan army. However, it turns out that it is the recruiting process of the Afghan National Army that might also be playing a role in the turncoat attacks. Most of the Afghan men responsible for the killings had some criminal background and should have never been part of security forces in the first place. This is because the international forces initially were recruiting Afghans at “too ambitious levels. You end up lowering your standards,” says Wilder. Following a shift of strategy from a fighting mission to a training one, the ranks of the Afghan National Army are swelling. There are now about 300,000 active Afghan troops compared to 130,000 international forces. But ISAF soldiers “don’t see themselves as trainers but as fighters,” says Exum, and therefore don’t put a lot of effort into their teaching, contributing to poor training of Afghan forces and soured relations.
Analysts fear that there might be more attacks in the future. Indeed, international forces are moving towards an embedded model, which creates new safety problems: NATO soldiers embed with Afghan forces to train them and are therefore no longer surrounded by their comrades. “It involves a big trust between international and national forces,” says Wilder. And this trust is being tested every day. On March 11th, a U.S. soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, reviving fears of reprisals.