Murders halt joint patrolling by Afghans and NATO

American artillery training Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan © Getty Images

A rise in attacks on NATO soldiers by rogue members of the Afghan forces has fuelled mutual mistrust. Now joint operations are being scaled down. What price comradeship?

War is hell, but the Afghanistan conflict has added a new layer to the myriad physical and psychological challenges facing the troops.

Out on patrol in hostile territory, the ISAF forces watch for signs of Taliban activity and are vulnerable to attack. Temperatures can be extreme, the young men and women are a long way from home, and booby traps or bombings by the enemy are a constant danger.

But the soldiers cannot afford to relax even when they stop for a break or return to barracks and bases for a meal or to rest. The reason? Some of their colleagues might be more dangerous than the insurgents. In increasing numbers, Afghan recruits and trainees have been turning their weapons on their foreign fellows, gunning them down or setting off explosive devices. The problem has become so bad that so-called ‘guardian angel’ soldiers - armed guards - are now required to keep watch as the mixed troops eat together, participate in training sessions, exercise and converse.

As a preventative measure it is sensible. But it worsens the original problem – lack of trust. Reports say that most non-professional or social contact between the two sides has stopped. Afghan troops are not allowed to use mobile phones in some places for fear of pressure from outside the camps: threats to harm family or home villages are probably being used to coerce vulnerable individuals into attacking their foreign comrades.

For their part, Afghan troops talk of mutual mistrust, brought on by the apparently routine way in which NATO operations aimed at Taliban and insurgents accidentally kill and maim Afghan civilians and disregard local sensitivities. In one notorious incident, US troops accidentally burned copies of the Quran; but according to a senior Afghan soldier interviewed anonymously by Newsweek magazine, there is constant low level racism, arrogance and lack of respect. ‘I too,’ he said, ‘have been personally hurt by the way US soldiers behave to my soldiers, our villages, religion and culture.’

Soldiers and policymakers say the causes of ‘green on blue’ attacks cannot be traced back to an organised or Taliban-inspired conspiracy. Some of the gunmen turn out to have links to the insurgency, it is true, but others are nursing a personal grievance or feel long-festering resentment against what they see as an occupying alien power.

Band of brothers

Most of us will never know how it feels to be flown out to the battlefields of a faraway nation, where you have to rely on comrades to protect you. Under attack or making an assault, a successful military unit will be bonded together by trust. The situation is extreme, so the mutual support must be total. What happens to a ‘band of brothers’ if one of you might at any moment turn a gun on the others?

You Decide

  1. ‘Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ This quote from the New Testament is often used at military funerals. Do you agree with the sentiment?
  2. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and right to die for your country). This Latin phrase has been challenged and even mocked by disillusioned soldiers, most famously the WWI war poets. Might it ever be true? Is it now?

Activities

  1. Find the best quotes you can about the nature of war, warfare and soldiering and share them, together with an explanation, with the class.
  2. Creative writing: imagine you are either an Afghan recruit or a NATO soldier patrolling hostile territory alongside colleagues you don’t entirely trust. Write a letter home describing your experiences.

Some People Say...

“It is human nature to only trust people who are like you.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this a low level problem compared to the Taliban?
These so-called ‘green on blue’ killings have escalated from two or three per year to the point where they are having a serious effect on morale. So far this year, over 50 NATO personnel have been killed by members of the Afghan police force or army.
So how will NATO deal with it?
Yesterday the top military commander announced that all lower-level joint operations would be suspended unless given specific case-by-case clearance. The British government attempted to argue there would be little impact on their own work in training and patrolling with Afghan colleagues. But the US military clearly believes the threats are so serious as to require increased caution.

Word Watch

War is hell
This famous quote is attributed to General Sherman while addressing troops graduating from an American military academy in the late 1800s.
Taliban
Ousted from power in October 2001, this Islamic fundamentalist movement had seized control of the capital Kabul and much of the country, imposing a highly restrictive regime and abusing human rights. Now they maintain resistance to the NATO forces and the new government, with constant violent attacks on the invaders and the population.
ISAF
The International Security Assistance Force is the name for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, of which the US is the largest member, is a strategic defence alliance in which an attack on one Western nation prompts a retaliation from all. ISAF was formed after the 9/11 attacks on America, and was designed to track down al Qaeda in their Afghan bases and dislodge their Afghan hosts from power.
Insurgents
This word refers to parts of the population of a country that has been invaded and/or occupied who resist violently and disrupt the establishment of a new government or regime.

Subjects

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