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Joint raids suspended: NATO’s Afghanistan strategy hits hurdle

US and NATO forces announced that they will now severely restrict their partnered operations with Afghan forces, following a wave of so-called green-on-blue killings where Afghan security forces kill international military troops and violent fallout from the anti-Islam YouTube video.

Prior to the shift, international forces throughoutAfghanistan regularly conducted joint missions with their Afghan counterparts and oversaw many training exercises. Now any joint interaction that takes place below advising the command staff at the battalion level will require the approval of the two-star NATO general in command of the region.

“It was both the spate of green-on-blues recently, as well as recent worldwide events following the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video and the attacks on embassies. There were a lot of risks to ISAF soldiers as well as Americans abroad in the past week that have driven this decision,” says US Army Maj. Adam Wojack, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force. “We noticed a trend, and we’re doing what we can to mitigate the risk to our troops in the field.”

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The new policy is likely to put even more distance between international and Afghan forces, stressing relations at a time when NATO has been working to hand over a greater portion of the security responsibility ahead of the end of its combat operations in 2014.

In recent years, US and international forces have placed great emphasis on making the majority of their operations here Afghan-led, adopting Dari slogans such as shohna ba shohna, or “shoulder by shoulder,” to describe their relationship with Afghan forces.

“Security assistance is the No. 1 pillar of the US strategy in Afghanistan. Everything centers around training and equipping Afghan forces so that US and NATO can finally exit [in 2014] after 14 years at war,” says Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. “The fact that you have seen such a dramatic shift and such a huge widening of the trust deficit between Afghan forces and their foreign advisers really indicates that the strategy is in serious peril.”

This year alone, Afghan security forces have killed 51 international soldiers. Insider killings prompted enough concern earlier this month that the US military announced it would temporarily suspend the training of 1,000 Afghan local policemen until recruits could be re-vetted.

On Sunday, before the new restrictions were announced, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stressed that something needed to be done in the face of the problem.

“We’re all seized with [the] problem,” Gen. Martin Dempsey told the American Forces Press Service. “You can’t whitewash it. We can’t convince ourselves that we just have to work harder to get through it. Something has to change.”

It’s often difficult to determine the motive of shooters in green-on-blue attacks, but in many instances the cause seems to stem from personal disputes rather than insurgent infiltration. An argument is suspected to have sparked one of the deadliest green-on-blue incidents, when an Afghan pilot killed eight NATO soldiers and one foreign contractor in April 2011. Anger over the recent anti-Islam video could become a serious trigger for more.

“I’m concerned that these kinds of videos will have an effect on the individual actions,” says Naqibullah, a former Afghan Army general who, like many Afghans, has only one name. “I don’t think the Taliban is strong enough to put their people inside the government and the Army. These are normal Afghans, but when they see anything that is against their culture and religion, they start shooting at foreigners.”

The policy shift has created a sense of gloom in Afghanistan among local analysts, as many question the future of NATO’s mission here and what this change means for Afghan forces who still require much training and assistance.

“It’s a negative step when it comes to empowering Afghan security forces and stability inside Afghanistan,” says Younus Faqoor, an independent analyst in Kabul. “It will cause a gradual disunity to build up and it will cause more security problems for the country.”

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