June 14, 2017
Taliban insider attacks designed to sow distrust between U.S. and Afghan forces are likely to provoke a contrary reaction by strengthening America’s commitment to the war, Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon told Afghan Online Press (AOP).
On Tuesday, June 13, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States was “not winning” the war against a surging Taliban movement. The Pentagon chief’s remarks come in the wake of a so-called “green-on-blue” insider attack that left three U.S. troops dead in Nangarhar Province over the weekend.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AP an insurgent loyalist had infiltrated the Afghan army “just to attack foreign forces.”
Mattis and his top commanders, meanwhile, are considering deploying an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan, raising the prospect that the insurgents targeted American personnel to discourage President Donald Trump from approving an escalation.
“I think you are right, that they [the Taliban] targeted the U.S. hoping that it would persuade Trump to back down,” O’Hanlon, a former external adviser to the CIA, said in an interview with AOP. “One must acknowledge that it is not a crazy strategy – there is at least some small chance it could work.”
The Taliban, O’Hanlon explained, were gambling that policymakers in Washington would think the mission in Afghanistan was pointless if U.S. forces could not trust the very allies they were training.
However, O’Hanlon argued, the insurgents probably miscalculated because targeting U.S. personnel will likely only strengthen the White House and military’s “commitment to the fight.”
The Brookings scholar suggested that the United States may have to revert to a stricter vetting process to prevent Taliban infiltration into Afghan armed forces in the future.
“When this was a big issue back around 2012, we not only tightened vetting but also created the ‘guardian angels’ program by which various people helped protect each other in close-quarter engagements with Afghan troops,” O’Hanlon said.
The U.S. military, he recommended, should also investigate the personnel involved in the most recent attack to try and uncover any chinks in the armor.
“Also, I would certainly look specifically at who is doing the vetting in the Nangarhar region and look for weak links or disloyal people who are involved in that process,” O’Hanlon stated. “Beyond that, some risk will alas remain, I’m afraid, regardless.”
Another defense analyst, Michael Maloof, told RT the incident demonstrates the risks involved with U.S. personnel training forces in remote regions without combat troops backing them up.
Maloof also pointed out that there appears to be a breakdown in vetting procedures and the Pentagon is surely going to be investigating and must improve the process.
“There should have been something that was picked up on this Taliban commander’s background that could have kicked him out and denied him access to the Afghan Army,” Maloof claimed.
In April, the Modern War Institute at West Point reported that since 2007 157 NATO personnel (now 160) and 557 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have been killed in insider attacks.
The report also said that after 2011 insider attacks became “the preferred warfighting tactic of the Taliban,” and illustrated a chilling depth of knowledge that has allowed the movement to exploit U.S. weaknesses.
“Despite a reputation for cultural myopia, the Taliban’s use of insider attacks reveals that the group understood U.S. military and political culture and domestic sensitivities far better than some imagined,” the report noted.
Using Afghan forces to attack U.S. and NATO personnel was a “cultural weapon” that targeted “two weakness in the U.S. civil-military apparatus: a deep aversion to casualties and the need to believe in benevolent narratives about why Americans fight,” the report added.
During a congressional hearing in April, after similar insider attacks, Mattis said that while such treachery was a part of war, it would not diminish the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.
While the United States might be having trust issues with Afghan forces, Afghan locals in Nangarhar are likely having trust issues with the American military, given three civilians were reportedly gun downed on June 12 by U.S. troops after their vehicle hit a roadside bomb.
“They opened fire on civilians walking in the vicinity, killing all three,” Ghani Khel district chief Abdul Wahab told RFE/RL. “They might have thought the people were the ones who set up the bomb.”
On Monday, June 12, the bodies of the three U.S. soldiers killed in the insider attack returned in flag-draped caskets to Dover Air Force Base, where they were met by Vice President Mike Pence, CNN reported. All three men were in their 20s and belonged to the101st Airborne Division, according to the Pentagon.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and was a member of the external advisory board at the Central Intelligence Agency from 2011 to 2012. He also co-directs, with retired General John Allen, the Brookings Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence.