WASHINGTON — Military leaders have stressed the point repeatedly in recent days: A growing wave of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by Afghan troops are “isolated,” often unexplained incidents that usually occur without a direct link to the Taliban.
“These still are sporadic incidents and I don’t think they reflect any kind of broad pattern,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday, when two British troops and one American were killed by Afghan forces in separate attacks and a cache of suicide bomb vests were found at a government ministry in Kabul.
“The Taliban of course takes credit for all of them when in fact the majority are not in fact a direct result of Taliban infiltration,” Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said this week.
But if that’s meant to shore up confidence in the Afghan campaign, a lack of direct insurgent involvement is actually far more troubling, experts in terrorism and counterinsurgency said.
Widespread resentment among Afghan forces has surged since U.S. troops inadvertently incinerated Qurans at a U.S. detention facility. That anger is morphing into violent opposition, threatening a U.S. transition strategy based on NATO and Afghan troops working as partners, according to an analyst who endorses the basic partnership strategy.
“It would be an easier problem to deal with if this were simply infiltration,” said Arturo Muñoz, senior political scientist for RAND, a defense-oriented think tank partly financed by the U.S. government. “We shouldn’t be happy that is isn’t Taliban infiltration, that people we’re supposed to be allies with are so angry at us for their own reasons that they want to kill us.”
Though bombs remain the leading cause of death among troops, more Americans have been shot to death by Afghan forces than by the Taliban this year, prompting Allen to issue a range of new force-protection measures in recent weeks.
“We have taken steps necessary on our side to protect ourselves with respect to, in fact, sleeping arrangements, internal defenses associated with those small bases in which we operate, the posture of our forces, to have someone always overwatching our forces,” he said.
The measures reportedly include allowing NATO troops in government ministries to carry weapons.
Ramping up force-protection measures, while it may be necessary, makes training and partnership even harder, a South Asia expert said.
“This [violence] understandably affects, in subtle or not so subtle ways, the posture of NATO forces, which the Afghans pick up on,” said Stephen Tankel, an expert in terrorism and insurgency and an assistant professor at American University in Washington. “They see they are regarded as a threat, and it further erodes the health of the relationship.”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said this week that while high profile attacks generate headlines, they’re still rare compared to all the partnered operations in Afghanistan that go smoothly.
“We’re talking about thousands of operations … all over the country in every single one of the regional commands, every single day, and they’re uniformly successful,” he said.
The violence reinforces the goal of quickly training the Afghans and withdrawing the substantial balance of foreign troops from the country, Kirby said
“As troubling as this trend is,” he added, “it is does not spell the end, at all, of our strategy.”
But even if the military is inclined to push on, fratricidal violence is contributing to a precipitous rise in antiwar sentiment at home, which could lead to a shift in policy and strategy, said another analyst who studies counterinsurgency operations.
“The strategic impact on public opinion here in the West has been overwhelming,” said Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, citing a recent New York Times/CBS poll indicating that 69 percent of Americans want the United States out of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon should stop arguing the attacks are unconnected and often unexplainable, and deal with some unsettling truth about Afghan attitudes, said Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University professor and director of the university’s Center for Peace and Security Studies.
“Trends happen not because they’re guided or orchestrated, but because they seize the popular imagination,” he said, “and this seems to be that kind of trend.”
The United States should continue to assure Afghans it will not suddenly leave the country, nor it is interested in controlling its destiny, Hoffman said, adding that the Pentagon must find the common thread in the supposedly isolated attacks and address it.
“We don’t know why it’s happening. That’s what worries me,” he said. “We’re making judgments and taking actions without really understanding the phenomenon.”