Green-on-Blue Attacks: Results of Lax Recruiting & Cultural Divides

January 14, 2013
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By Farzana Nabi, Ph.D. -

The number of green-on-blue or “insider attacks” by rogue elements within the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has surpassed 50 as of January 2013, making 2012 the highest in any single year. The issue that has stumped many – and caused NATO allies to initially halt joint operations – is how effectively to train the ANSF to lead security once ISAF exits by 2014, and to do so in such a way that it does not result in similar attacks.

A review of vetting and recruiting procedures within the ANSF reveals a porous process riddled with security holes, despite claims by Afghan defense officials of adequately strengthening recruitment procedures and firing hundreds of Afghan soldiers as a result of insider attacks. In my observations, vetting and recruiting appears to be window dressing that lacks critical measures ordinarily indicative of the hallmarks of a successful selection process. Once an individual decides to join the ANSF, he (or she) provides the necessary paperwork such as a taskira (identification card) to local recruiting centers in their respective districts. Having passed this initial screening, they are sent to the Kabul Recruiting Center and are subjected to an 8-step vetting process, which includes more paperwork and testing: identification cards, two letters of recommendation from village or district elders, collection of biometric data, and physical and proficiency exams. The problem with this process is that it is Afghan-led, and NATO-advised, leaving corrupt officials to decide who gets in, with quantity invariably taking precedence over quality. While it is true that in order for Afghans to lead security post-2014, all ANSF recruitment has to be Afghan-led, but serious problems abound with NATO-ISAF bearing the brunt of the inefficiencies of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) whose website, after more than a decade in operation, still carries “under construction” labels.

Afghanistan and its government entities are riddled with corruption and graft, and in the context of the ANA includes skimming of soldier’s pay by ANA leadership, fraudulent redirecting of automatic deposits, involvement in poppy cultivation and collusion with insurgents. The Afghan National Police (ANP) does not fare any better – the recent Police Perception Survey conducted by the UN Development Program (UNDP) showed that 77 percent of those polled held a favorable view of the ANP, which changed little from the 79 percent reported two years ago. However, a closer examination of the results reveals that there are stark differences between regions. While perceptions of the ANP improved dramatically in the southern and central regions, it “worsened” in Central Kabul, the West, and the East. Similarly, the Afghan public’s assessment in the Asia Foundation’s latest survey showed that the ANP was “unprofessional and poorly trained.”

Officials at the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTMA) have put forth efforts to reduce corruption in the ANSF such as developing a code of ethics, establishing anti-corruption phone lines and investigative agencies; a lottery system for army assignments that adds to transparency; accountability of equipment; and blue dye added to fuel supplies in an effort to reduce theft. While laudable, such efforts are meaningless if they are not implemented. Spending the last year in Afghanistan – both in Helmand and Kabul provinces – I interviewed hundreds of ANA recruits, and while attrition is often cited as a major issue by ANA officials and NATO-ISAF, most recruits cited nepotism and favoritism as the most deleterious one.

The value of the taskira is also meaningless, with most recruits touting the ease with which they obtained theirs, with some stating that their real age was different from what their taskiras revealed – often younger than the stipulated minimum age of 18 for military service. While falsifying birth dates to join the ANSF is an issue, it is minor compared to infiltration by insurgents who easily obtain fraudulent taskiras that eventually result in the victimization of their comrades and NATO-ISAF counterparts. However, according to U.S. defense officials, insurgent infiltration only accounts for 25 percent (dating back to 2007) with the number dropping to 10 percent in 2012; resulting in an even more perplexing issue: 40 percent of insider attacks are attributed to “unknown” reasons. These unknowns most probably account for cultural misunderstandings and/or the discontent of specific individuals.

Cultural misunderstandings may be touted as a major reason for green-on-blue attacks not attributed to insurgents, but the war-torn environment in which recruits grew up must also be examined more closely. Showering and grooming practices aside, psycho-social factors have not been given serious consideration. When an ANSF recruit construes interactions with NATO-ISAF counterparts as threatening, they may inadvertently revert to fight-or-flight mode – most often opting for the former. Glossing over serious post-traumatic stress issues as a result of decades of war in lieu of meeting ANSF quotas have led to the present environment of “friendly fire.” Add to that the inability of MoD to implement a streamlined tracking system – coupled with an environment of impunity for those engaged in bribery, theft and murder – and the result is a perfect storm for such attacks.

There is no guarantee against insider attacks, but an in-depth understanding of the psycho-social nuances that may lead to them should not remain an afterthought for NATO-ISAF. Building a unified, resilient ANSF should go beyond filling quotas and focus more on the psyche of each individual being recruited.

Farzana Nabi served as a Social Scientist for the US Department of Defense (DoD) and spent one year conducting research in Afghanistan. She is also a founding member of Afghan Analytica and serves on its editorial board.


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[1]In 2011, there were 36, and in previous years, the average was one per year through 2008.

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Light News Bites

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At the sentencing hearing of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, from the village where Bales killed 16 civilians in March 2012 testified: "That bastard stood right in front of me, I wanted to ask him: 'What did I do? What have I done to you?'" A jury will decide whether Bales will get life in prison or be eligible for parole. His guilty plea in June means Bales won't face the death penalty. (Newswires)
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• Afghan Attorney-General Muhammad Isaaq Aloko has kept his job despite a decision by an angry President Hamid Karzai to sack him over an unauthorized approach to the Taliban. Aleko denies the claim. (Reuters)