The Australian military announced yesterday that an Afghan National Army officer named Hekmatullah who killed three Australian troops in Uruzgan province on Aug. 28, 2012 has been turned over to Afghan authorities for trial.
Australian Defence Force Chief David Hurley told reporters that Pakistani authorities in February had “formally advised Australia that Hekmatullah was in custody in Pakistan,” but that the announcement of his capture had been delayed until his transfer to Afghanistan.
After killing three Australian soldiers and wounding two more in the attack last year at a base in Uruzgan, Hekmatullah had fled to Pakistan, and is said to have taken refuge with the Taliban there as early as October last year, according to a report in Adelaidenow.com. Although the Coalition had distributed handbills and posted a reward for Hekmatullah’s capture, he remained at large.
The Australian military had “worked closely” with the Pakistani intelligence services who arrested Hekmatullah, the BBC reported. The Australian Defence Ministry press release announcing the transfer credited the Afghan NDS as well, and said that Hekmatullah had been apprehended by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The report at Adelaidenow.com specified further that Australian authorities had worked together with “US National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), US special-forces units, Britain’s MI6 and the British SAS” to track Hekmatullah down.
The delay in announcing Hekmatullah’s capture was also mentioned in The Guardian, which included an explanation from General Hurley: “If you look at the relationships that exist in the region, I think there were a number of issues being played through in Pakistan as well, they had elections, other activities with the Afghan government. I think they were just working their way through both to find a process for this handover to occur and when would be the appropriate time.”
Australian Defence Force inquiry into Aug. 28, 2012 attack
While attempting to hunt down the killer, the Australians conducted an inquiry into the incident. On Sept. 25, the Australian Defence Force released a report on the inquiry. The inquiry’s findings included the determination that although the targeted platoon had sufficient resources, including intelligence, “decisions made at base were not appropriate,” said the vice-chief of the defence force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin.
The Australian inquiry criticized the decision by commanding officers “upon arrival at the base, that the most likely threat to their safety was due to insurgents or improvised explosive devices, despite an awareness of increasing ‘green on blue’ attacks by soldiers thought to be friendly,” The Guardian reported.
The Taliban were known to be targeting ISAF bases in Uruzgan as well as other provinces at the time, and the green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan had become increasingly frequent. As The Long War Journal reported on Aug. 12, 2012, two weeks before Hekmatullah’s attack, in the Threat Matrix article Observations on Taliban video ‘welcoming’ rogue ANA soldiers, the Taliban had recently released a 34-minute video featuring two rogue ANA soldiers who had conducted insider attacks and then fled to the Taliban. The video concluded with a previously recorded interview with a third rogue ANA soldier, “Ghazi” Mohammad Roozi, who shot and injured three Australian soldiers and two Afghan soldiers on Nov. 8, 2011 at patrol base Nasir in Uruzgan.
On Aug. 31, 2012, three days after the attack, the Taliban had released a statement claiming that an Afghan soldier named Hekmatullah, “with the rank of lieutenant” and “with feelings and live conscience,” killed the Australian soldiers. LWJ highlighted the statement in a Sept. 1, 2012 Threat Matrix post, Taliban claim sympathetic Afghan soldier killed Australian troops, noting that infiltration of the ANSF, along with the defection of sympathetic or opportunistic personnel, may well play a far greater role in these attacks than ISAF wants to admit.
The Australian authorities appear to have ignored the Taliban claim, or dismissed it as opportunistic. Air Marshal Biskin’s statement on the inquiry said the Inquiry Officer’s conclusion “that Hekmatullah’s actions were independent of any prior Taliban arrangements or involvement … is supported by the fact the Taliban has not claimed responsibility for the attack.” The inquiry did find, however, that Hekmatullah had sought Taliban help in making his escape after the attack.
Tracking green-on-blue killers
The Australians have shown doggedness in tracking down the green-on-blue attackers who escape. As General Hurley stated yesterday, Hekmatullah’s capture “draws a line,” according to The Guardian. Speaking of the four insider attacks that have taken place against Australian personnel, General Hurley said: “Those responsible for the deaths of seven Australian soldiers and who wounded another 10 have been captured or killed and no longer pose a threat to our people.”
In three of the four reported green-on-blue attacks against Australian forces (on May 30, 2011; Oct. 29, 2011; Nov. 9, 2011; and Aug. 28, 2012), the attacker managed to flee. The attacker in the October 2011 incident was shot and killed; Roozi, the November 2011 attacker, was tracked down and killed two months ago; and Hekmatullah, the August 2012 attacker, has just been handed over to Afghanistan for trial. The fate of the attacker in the May 30, 2011 incident is unknown, however. [For more information on insider attacks, see LWJ special report, Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data.]
On Aug. 15, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australian forces had located and killed Mohammed Roozi, the former Afghan National Army soldier who was involved in an insider attack on Nov. 8, 2011 in Uruzgan. Roozi had been featured in the 34-minute Taliban video last summer. [See LWJ report, Australian, ISAF troops hunt down Afghan soldier involved in 2011 green-on-blue attack.] At the time of Rudd’s announcement, General Hurley said Australian troops, who had never given up searching for Roozi, were still trying to track down other green-on-blue attackers, including Hekmatullah.
Hekmatullah and Roozi are among the few green-on-blue attackers to have been tracked down so far, however. According to LWJ data, in the 82 reported attacks since Jan. 1, 2008, at least 35 attackers are said to have fled. There is one reported instance of an attacker being located days after escaping (April 4, 2011 attack). So far, 66 attackers have been killed or captured during or immediately after the incident. And earlier this year, a captured attacker escaped from prison (July 9, 2013 attack).
Air Marshal Binskin’s statement also mentioned measures that have been adopted to counter insider attacks since the August 2012 incident, including improved Afghan National Army procedures for screening recruits, re-vetting soldiers returning from leave, and establishing an anonymous reporting system. He added: “The Afghan Ministry of Interior, along with coalition partners, continues the work to identify possible insurgent sympathisers and subversive elements within the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.”
The percentage of Coalition deaths due to green-on-blue attacks is running at 9% this year, down from last year’s peak of 15%, but considerably higher than the 6% in 2011. As Coalition troops continue to draw down in Afghanistan, those remaining are increasingly exposed, which will require greater vigilance regarding potential attackers. And the presence of Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan will continue to complicate the task of bringing the attackers to justice.