The jarring ring of a secure American military telephone interrupted an early evening interview with Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad, the Panjwai district chief of police (DCOP). Major Patrick Harty, Mohammad’s principal US Army adviser, took the call from his cross-legged position on the floor of the Afghan cop’s claustrophobic sitting room. After a brief conversation, Harty instructed an interpreter to notify the police chief of a developing situation: a US platoon out of Combat Outpost Sperwan Gar in the central portion of the district had tracked a known insurgent “high value target” to an Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint. The US soldiers wanted to arrest the man but there was a problem.
The target — who was suspected to be a brother or close associate of the Taliban’s shadow governor for the district — wasn’t trying to slip through the checkpoint or attack it; rather, he was visiting the local cops on a social call. The Americans had contacted the police chief seeking his permission in order to preempt any resistance that could ignite if they swooped in to make an arrest.
“If he is dangerous, then take him,” the police chief said with a dismissive, almost irritable wave of his hand.
It wasn’t that simple. A few minutes later, another phone call interrupted the interview. An interpreter with the US soldiers had overheard the Afghan cops say that they would shoot the Americans if they tried to take the insurgent. After two more phone calls, Pashto and English translations, and hurried negotiations culminating in the police chief personally instructing the Afghan local police checkpoint commander to “give him to the Americans,” the insurgent was finally apprehended and taken back to the US combat outpost. The drama only intensified, however.
Lt. Col. Mohammad also instructed the ALP checkpoint commander to head over to the US combat outpost to settle any remaining issues with the American company commander. The Afghan cop briefly complied, then stormed back to his vehicle, slamming its door and driving away. The police chief ordered him back once again. And as the Afghan cop resumed his debate with the US company commander at an entry control point to the American combat outpost, one or more of the Afghan policemen back at his checkpoint opened fire on the American base.
A few “pot shots” emanating from an AK-47 cracked from the ALP checkpoint and hit at the foot of one of the US guard towers. According to Harty, soon afterward a PK medium machine gun manned by insurgents took advantage of the chaos, opening up on both the US base and another local police checkpoint. Finally, an Afghan Army unit joined the fray, silencing the insurgent attack with small arms fire directed at the source of the Taliban machine gun.
Days later, Harty asserted that the issue had been resolved and “now everything is good.” But not before noting one more bit of drama: members of the Afghan police checkpoint in question threw rocks at the vehicle of Lieutenant Colonel Chad Sundem, the battalion commander who oversees all US forces in the eastern half of the district, including the combat outpost at Sperwan Gar.
The wild shots taken by the Afghan police officers at an American combat outpost in Sperwan, which will likely never make it into any official statistics on insider attacks, are indicative of the kind of tensions that complicate American advisory efforts in Afghanistan. Since Jan. 1, 2008, a total of 75 insider or “green-on-blue” attacks have been reported against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel in Afghanistan, killing 130 personnel and wounding 148 more [see LWJ report, Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data].
US military officials initially claimed that the overwhelming majority of attacks were the result of brewing cultural tensions between ISAF and Afghan personnel and that only about 10 per cent were caused by Taliban infiltration of the Afghan security forces. US Marine General John Allen, then the senior ISAF commander in Afghanistan, later revised the estimate of Taliban infiltration or instigation to about 25 percent in an August 2012 statement.
In Panjwai, there have been no officially reported green-on-blue attacks or casualties since the arrival of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in the district in late November. But there have been incidents that shed light on the dynamics that underlie insider attacks: Taliban infiltration or coercion (with some incidents culminating in “green-on-green” — Afghan on Afghan security forces — fatalities), cultural and operational tensions between Western and Afghan forces, and the simple confusion inherent to fighting an asymmetric war.
The fact that a close associate of the Taliban’s recently killed district shadow governor paid a visit to an Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint on the evening of March 25 raises natural suspicions that some of the local cops are in league with the insurgents. And given that the ALP is a minimally trained citizen militia of local men with extensive family ties to the area, it is certainly the force with the most opportunity for Taliban infiltration. Further, it seemed apparent to the Americans that the wanted insurgent was an acquaintance, friend, or family member of one or more of the cops stationed at the checkpoint. But there is another angle beyond any suspected collaboration between insurgents and the local cops.
It is also possible that the “high value target” was attempting to ingratiate himself with Afghans at the checkpoint in order to conduct reconnaissance or assassination. Harty notes that this has been “a common occurrence in the past several months,” with at least two reported insider killings of Afghan police officers in Panjwai since November. Prior to one attack on January 16, a visitor had befriended the cops at an ALP checkpoint and successfully petitioned them to become a local policeman. According to an Afghan police sergeant, the recruit was considered a loyal member of the unit before he slipped sleeping pills into a pot of chai; once the men at the checkpoint were unconscious, the infiltrator shot and killed the checkpoint commander, stole a number of weapons, and then made a clean getaway.
“The policeman was working with the ALP for three months, but he was trained by the insurgents to infiltrate and no one knew it,” explained Sergeant Niamatullah, commander of another Afghan Uniform Police checkpoint east of the Sperwan area. “He was very nice to the policemen, to the commander of the checkpoint and then during the night he picked up his gun when everyone was asleep and shot the commander. Then he stole weapons and took them to the insurgents. No one could stop him.”
In another incident at a different checkpoint in Sperwan, an infiltrator who had been a cop for two years suddenly and simply took an opportunity to shoot a checkpoint commander before also making his escape. Niamatullah and other members of the police force considered this incident especially surprising.
“We didn’t know his heart, what he had decided to do,” explained the sergeant. “But whenever he faced combat he shot at the enemy, so we had no clue he was bad. Then at night he picks up a gun shoots the commander and runs away.”
It is sometimes hard for the Afghan personnel, and exponentially more difficult for the Americans, to tell when members of the Afghan security forces are in league with an insurgent like the one who visited the ALP checkpoint near COP Sperwan Gar on March 25, or when an infiltrator is using local ties to gather intelligence or position himself for an insider attack. Afghan forces attempt to vet the individuals who join their ranks, but it is impossible to guarantee an individual’s intent, especially in light of the rapid recruitment associated with building a local militia from the area’s recent grassroots uprising against the Taliban.
Anger at a COP
Before the green-on-blue “pot shots” on March 25, tensions between American and Afghan forces had previously flared around Combat Outpost Sperwan Gar in mid-December, barely two weeks after the arrival of the soldiers with 1-38 Infantry. On a chilly winter day, eight Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) bringing food to one of their checkpoints petitioned the Americans to travel through the US outpost instead of around it; the ground to either side of the base was often sown with mines. The US soldiers agreed, but the Afghan policemen failed to clear their weapons before transiting through the base and they asked the Americans for fuel along the way. When the local cops returned from delivering the food and again asked to pass through the US facility, their request was denied until they agreed to clear all of their weapons. According to one US soldier, they refused the “simple” request and a standoff ensued.
After several radio calls from Afghan cops to their headquarters, followed by unsuccessful hails from US headquarters personnel to the Americans at the combat outpost, the AUP unit lost patience and decided to go around the base, using a road that “is only 100 meters to the side of the COP, and maybe a couple hundred meters across it,” according to one soldier. As the policemen circumnavigated, they were ambushed by insurgents. One Afghan cop was hit by small arms fire. And when the Americans at the combat outpost opened up on the insurgents in return, the Afghan police officers positioned in the crossfire thought the US soldiers were firing at them. Despite subsequent efforts by Americans to render aid to the mortally wounded Afghan policeman, they were blamed by the AUP for killing one of their men.
As the commander of the Afghan Uniform Police Security Forces Advise and Assist Team (SFAAT), Major Harty was quickly dispatched to the district headquarters police compound to resolve the issue. He recalls passing by “50 or 60” angry policemen, many of them armed, standing in the station’s courtyard. Upon entering a sitting room, he encountered the police chief, his executive officer, and eight “loaded and locked” Afghan policemen. The police chief at the time (who was replaced by Lt. Col. Mohammad in January) was described as a timid man who hailed from outside Panjwai; he simply looked at the floor while Major Hajji Lala Amadullah, his more assertive executive officer, loudly berated the American adviser for the events that had led to the death of the policeman.
Harty recalls patiently allowing Amadullah to vent his anger over the course of a multi-hour meeting. Eventually, the American raised his own voice in response:
“We’re sacrificing ourselves for your safety and security as well,” he argued, pointing out that, just days prior, the US unit in question had suffered heavy casualties in the same area.
On Dec. 10, Third Platoon from Bayonet Company, 1-38 Infantry out of COP Sperwan Gar took fire from insurgents after entering an area littered with buried bombs. When the Americans reacted toward cover, Staff Sergeant Wesley R. Williams stepped on a pressure plate IED. He and two other US soldiers were severely injured by the blast, and an Afghan soldier was wounded by insurgent machine gun fire. Despite aid rendered under heavy fire by Private First Class Breilen A. Rosenberg, the platoon’s line medic, and a helicopter medevac to Kandahar Airfield (after four attempted landings, also under fire), Williams succumbed to his wounds.
Harty’s argument about shared sacrifice and the venting that had preceded it defused his argument with the police. The Afghan-American tensions abated, for a time.
A planted Koran
In addition to operational conflicts, there are steep cultural pitfalls for Westerners operating in Afghanistan. Attempts by insurgents to capitalize on these issues pose an omnipresent threat. The highest profile example has been the attempted disposal of copies of the Koran by US personnel at Bagram Airbase in February 2012. The outrage and countrywide riots that ensued after the perceived insult to Islam resulted in the deaths of at least 11 people, including two US military personnel. Oddly enough to Westerners, local sentiment in Panjwai seems far less forgiving of the US military’s unintentional affront to the Islamic holy book than the massacre of 17 civilians attributed to US Staff Sergeant Robert Bales last March. [See LWJ report, Taliban incite Afghans to kill ‘Crusaders’ over Koran burning.]
Insurgents are keenly aware of these sensitivities, and sometimes attempt information campaigns and false flag operations to stoke tensions. A recent example occurred in mid-February at Forward Operating Base Zangabad, a US facility in a still kinetic portion of Panjwai district. An Afghan civilian sanitation worker was recorded by surveillance assets as he neatly placed a copy of the Koran in a trash dumpster near the border of the US and Afghan Army portions of the base. The worker then began to loudly proclaim that he had discovered the holy book in the trash, arguing that his American employers had defiled it.
US personnel headed off a significant crisis by showing their Afghan National Army (ANA) counterparts surveillance footage of the worker placing the Koran in the trash. “We have a good rapport with the ANA [and they] didn’t buy it,” said Captain Thomas Beecroft, a US public affairs officer with 4-9 Infantry.
Nevertheless, seven civilian workers immediately quit their jobs. Another group of workers subsequently left their positions after an investigation cleared the Americans of any wrongdoing. This had been the second time an Afghan worker had tried to stage a fake Koran desecration at FOB Zangabad, and attempts by insurgents to stimulate protests against foreign forces remain a threat.
“The enemy is trying to use different tactics … their intent was to disrupt our relationship with the Americans,” said Major Touryalay, the executive officer for the 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 205th Corps. of the Afghan Army, the unit that is based at FOB Zangabad. “I tasked our intelligence officer to do a background check on everyone who enters the camp, and also to get a guarantee from a member of the Kandahar provincial council in order to work here. All of this is to prevent future problems like this.”
The war in Panjwai, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, remains fraught with cultural tensions, attempts at insurgent information operations and infiltration, and simple confusion on the battlefield. Another small crisis ignited on March 27, when a US Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) team opened fire on a group of Afghan policemen who said they were conducting poppy eradication at night.
This latest incident was resolved after a flurry of radio calls culminated in the dispatch of Apache helicopters that identified the policeman via their superior vantage and night optics. The district police chief traveled to the scene the following day to address the issue in a long meeting with the green berets. Discernment in the battlefield can be especially problematic in the case of Afghan local or uniform policemen who do not always wear their uniforms; but Major Amadullah, the district executive officer, assured the Americans that his men were dressed in their police garb that night.
“Look at me,” he said to Harty. “Have you ever seen me not in my uniform?”
Guardian Angels, Sentinels, and stupid jokes
The American security measures used to combat insider attacks consist of the use of “Guardian Angels” and “Sentinels,” personal security detachments that watch over each US engagement with Afghan leaders and personnel. Sentinels are comprised of at least two soldiers who face outward, establishing a perimeter to keep watch on any personnel who may want to attack a meeting or other event. The Guardian Angels are inward-facing security: soldiers who constantly monitor the US personnel who are conducting any engagement, as well as the posture and demeanor of their Afghan counterparts.
Other security measures include guarded and physical segregation of Afghan and American personnel who share secured bases, and the typical practice of Afghan elements taking point when conducting joint patrols. The physical arrangement makes sense as Afghan forces assume the lead in security operations and greet the local population. It is also more difficult to execute a successful green-on-blue attack when US troops are staged to the rear of their Afghan partners, though patrols still sometimes include different Afghan elements mixed throughout the formation.
Of all the standard security measures, one of the most effective counters to insider attacks that result from cultural and operational tensions is the establishment of basic rapport. Contrary to the image presented by green-on-blue statistics, Afghan-American relationships are not always marked by fearful tension, cultural antipathy, and confused or angry gunshots in the dark. Many troops and police officers manage to maintain cordial and even friendly relationships with their foreign counterparts.
“The vast majority of the [Afghans] are trustworthy, they’re not going to pull a weapon on you,” explained First Lieutenant Ben Cummings, commander of 2nd Platoon, Bayonet Company, 1-38 Infantry. “It’s just that one oddball, or the guy that went on leave and got threatened [if he didn’t] come back and … take some shots at Americans. And usually when they shoot at Americans, they shoot at ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as well. It’s rarely just attacking Americans.”
The US Guardian Angels who accompanied Major Harty to a meeting with AUP executive officer Amatullah on March 27 kept an eye out for threats, but they also spent time socializing with the police officer’s personal security guards. Loud laughter could be heard through the door to Amatullah’s quarters during the meeting, and handshakes, stilted English and Pashto, and even a couple of high-fives and man hugs marked the Americans’ departure from the police compound.
“We have a pretty good relationship [with the cops] around here,” explained one of the US soldiers afterward. “We don’t have many problems.”
First Lieutenant Cummings, who continues to work with Afghan security forces in another portion of the district, echoed the assessment:
“For the most part, it’s easy to work with [Afghans], you just walk in and they’re happy to see you, happy to talk with you,” the platoon leader explained. “[But the Afghan cops are] usually hesitant to go on patrol with you, unless you have a really good relationship with them, and that just comes with time … if you go in there and sit down and have a conversation with them every day.”
Bill Ardolino’s forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. All of the author’s proceeds from the first edition of the book — which has received a ‘starred’ review from Publishers Weekly — will benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.