Afghanistan 'Green-On-Blue' Attacks Get High-Level Attention

In this Wednesday, May 16, 2012 photo, Afghan National Army soldiers train with their M16 rifle at a firing range at the 203
In this Wednesday, May 16, 2012 photo, Afghan National Army soldiers train with their M16 rifle at a firing range at the 203 Thunder Corps base in Gardez, Paktia province, Afghanistan. A disturbingly high number of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks, a U.S. military term for Afghan soldiers killing their NATO counterparts, has resulted in 35 deaths in 2011 and 22 so far in mid 2012. Col. Asif Khan Saburi, in charge of training army recruits in five provinces, said the increase in attacks prompted a ban on international soldiers being at firing ranges. In May 2011, a U.S. Army team led by a behavioral scientist released a 70-page survey that revealed both Afghans and American soldiers hold disturbingly negative perceptions of the other. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

A worrisome trend of American service members being killed by their Afghan counterparts finally got the Commander-in-Chief treatment on Monday -- and may soon receive the full attention of Capitol Hill.

President Obama spoke at length on Monday about the rise of what the military calls "green-on-blue" attacks -- when a western service member is killed by a member of the Afghan national security forces.

"Obviously we've been watching with deep concern these so-called green-on-blue attacks," Obama said during a surprise appearance before the White House press corps. "We are already doing a range of things, and we're seeing some success when it comes to better counterintelligence, making sure that the vetting process for Afghan troops is stronger. And we've got what's called the Guardian Angel program, to make sure that our troops aren’t in isolated situations that might make them more vulnerable. But obviously we're going to have to do more, because there has been an uptick over the last 12 months on this."

Later in the day, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) distributed a letter he had sent to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), calling on him to hold a hearing specifically on the attacks.

"While the threat of 'green-on-blue' attacks has been constant, the growing frequency of these attacks is alarming," Hunter wrote in the letter. "It is my recommendation that the committee conduct a hearing on the issue of 'green-on-blue' attacks or, at the very least, request a briefing by the proper Department of Defense officials."

It was a move that many Afghanistan watchers considered long overdue. Some 35 such attacks have occurred so far this year -- more than any previous year -- and the numbers appear to be spiking: In the past two weeks, 10 Americans have been killed by "friendly" Afghan security forces.

In one recent incident, a newly sworn-in local policeman was handed his official AK-47 at his graduation ceremony last Friday, and immediately began firing, killing two American trainers.

Last week, commanders in Afghanistan ordered that all American military personnel keep their personal firearms loaded while on bases -- normally they remove all ammunition before entering the secured facilities. They also ordered a name change: green-on-blue incidents would now be known as "insider attacks."

Also on Monday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, was in Kabul to meet with the commander of U.S. forces there, Gen. John Allen, to talk about how to stem the tide of killings.

But back in Washington, where policymakers continue to vote on troop funding and most attention is deflected toward a political campaign focused largely on the economy, the rise in green-on-blue attacks has drawn something closer to silence.

"The issue of insider attacks has been raised -- though within the context of broader topics," wrote Rep. Hunter in his letter.

In a response to Hunter, Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said the issue of green-on-blue attacks "has commanded significant attention this year," including in two hearings, although it was not immediately clear what hearings he was referring to.

Research conducted by The Huffington Post showed only seven occasions in which "green on blue" incidents have come up during congressional hearings over the past year. Many of them involved a single congressman making a statement about a constituent of his who was killed in this way, or asking a cursory question of the senior military official who happened to be testifying before the panel.

When HuffPost asked then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, during an interview in his office in Kabul in May, whether Members of Congress brought the issue up much during their official visits to the war zone, he said that it has rarely been a topic of serious inquiry.

"It is something we discuss with many of our congressional visitors," Crocker said at the time. "But it has not been, to this point, an absolutely top-tier issue."

A recent essay in the New Yorker pointed out that the presidential campaigns haven't done much better in this regard.

In March, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) took to the floor of the House to decry the lack of focus on green-on-blue attacks, which he noted the military had already described as a "growing systemic threat."

On Monday, he joined Hunter in calling for a full hearing into the objectives of the war, including the rise in green-on-blue attacks.

"America has been at war in Afghanistan for 11 years – the longest wartime in U.S. history – but it’s becoming obvious that the American people no longer have a clear sense of what we are trying to accomplish, why it remains necessary and how far we are from attaining our goal," Wolf told HuffPost in a statement. "We believe Congress has a moral obligation to convene hearings that will explore what has brought us to this point and how we can move forward as a nation in a sustainable way, honoring the tremendous sacrifice that has already been made by so many."

The insider attacks also pose a significant challenge to the president's Afghanistan exit strategy, which calls for turning over security operations to a functioning Afghan security force that will help keep the peace in the country after the U.S. draws down most of its troops by the end of 2014.

"Part of what's taking place is we are transitioning to Afghan security, and for us to train them effectively, we are in much closer contact -- our troops are in much closer contact with Afghan troops on an ongoing basis," Obama said on Monday. "And part of what we've got to do is to make sure that this model works but it doesn’t make our guys more vulnerable."

American military and diplomatic officials in Kabul have long emphasized it is not evident that the attacks are driven by Taliban infiltrators; many more, they say, are simply the result of petty grievances or long-simmering tensions between the forces.

In one high profile attack earlier this year, an American Green Beret was shot by one of his partners in a highly trained Afghan special operations unit, a first for that particular division. Meanwhile, an attack that left three Marines dead last week was the work not of a member of the Afghan armed forces, but a young civilian, the personal assistant of a district police chief, the Washington Post reported.

The more mundane reasons for the attacks only seem to further complicate the training mission: without trust, it is increasingly difficult for the forces to effectively train together.

As Matthew Rosenberg reported in The New York Times earlier this year, the incidents have long been detrimental to the relationships between troops on the ground, with many American trainers going out of their way to carry personal firearms whenever they interact with their Afghan counterparts -- "just in case," as one put it.

The military has said they have conducted their own investigations -- including one episode earlier this year in which the shooter was captured alive and interrogated -- but little is known or revealed about the results of those inquiries, other than occasional leaks to the press.

But that silence may be nearing its end.

"The larger context for this is that we're fighting this war with almost no discussion and debate on the homefront," said Peter Feaver, a Duke political scientist who was on President George W. Bush's national security staff. But in a campaign year, he said, green-on-blue attacks were just the sort of thing that could force a debate.

"It is quite disturbing, and it raises important questions about the viability of the president's strategy in Afghanistan," Feaver said. "The president may have to answer questions about it between here and the election."