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'Green-On-Blue' Attacks Challenge Afghan Security


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As the U.S. and NATO start to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan, many in Kabul are considering the lessons of history this summer, and two years in particular: 1989 and the withdrawal of Soviet troops after 10 years; 1992 and the Afghan civil war.

Last month, Dexter Filkins reported in The New Yorker that Afghan factions are already preparing for a resumption of the civil war in the event the Afghan army can't defend the country against the Taliban. He'll join us in a few minutes.

U.S. troops are training and equipping their Afghan counterparts as quickly as possible, a process hampered by a spate of attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against U.S. and NATO troops.

If you served in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan troops, tell us - what's working, what isn't. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Later in the program, the outbreak of West Nile Virus and what's being done to control it. But first, Afghanistan. Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon correspondent and joins us here in Studio 3A. Always nice to have you on the program, Tom.


CONAN: And you're just back from the Pentagon and a video briefing with General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who's in Kabul. What do U.S. officials say about why these so called green-on-blue attacks are happening, and why so many?

BOWMAN: Well, General Allen doesn't really have a sense of what's causing these or why they're increasing. He points to several reasons. First of all, Taliban infiltration is one; also personal grudges and grievances against American soldiers by Afghans. And he also mentioned something interesting today - the holy month of Ramadan, which is just wrapping up.

And he says that Ramadan came in the summer, during the fighting season. The fasting involved in that, the high number of combat operations, may have caused some of these Afghan soldiers and police to snap somehow and lash out at American forces.

But there have been about 10 Americans killed just in the past two weeks, these so-called insider attacks. And everyone's grappling with this, trying to figure out how to get their arms around it, and it's a very difficult situation.

CONAN: Did he have any evidence that Ramadan was somehow responsible?

BOWMAN: You know, he did not. And another general I know over there told me the same thing about a week ago without any evidence. I think they're just trying to look for some reasons why they've seen a spike in these recently.

People I talk with in Washington, though, say that in the intelligence community, they're starting to see an increase in Taliban attacks as part of this insider attacks. They think the Taliban is doing much more of this. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is pressing his fighters to infiltrate the Afghan police and army. So they're pointing to that as part of the reason we're seeing the recent increase in attacks.

CONAN: General Allen was briefed yesterday in Kabul by some of President Karzai's advisors, who've come to conclusions of their own - they've looked into it as well - and they blame, yes, anger at U.S. troops for inhumane acts, as they're described, the burning of the Koran, the desecration of bodies.

But they also say not Taliban infiltration quite so much as infiltration by foreign intelligence services, the Pakistanis and the Iranians.

BOWMAN: That's right, and General Allen was asked about that today at the news conference, and he said he hasn't seen the intelligence on that yet. He would like to see it from the Afghans, but he said until he sees that, he really can't make any statement on that.

CONAN: The Afghans said - again, we haven't seen it, either, but the evidence is voluminous.

BOWMAN: Exactly, yeah, and he said - General Allen said he would like to talk with the Afghans about what information they have on their allegations that it's Pakistani intelligence as part of this insider attack problem. But again, he hasn't really talked about that yet.

CONAN: And what effect does this have on the vital project of training the Afghan army and police?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a morale issue, clearly. I mean, if you're out there with these troops, and one of your guys gets killed by someone in an Afghan uniform, it hurts the morale a bit. The other issue is, as U.S. troops withdraw, large combat units come down, and they're replaced by smaller training teams, there's a sense that they'll be more vulnerable now because you'll have maybe a dozen members of a U.S. training team out with a larger Afghan unit.

That's a real concern now, that they'll be placed more at risk. And General Allen said, well, this is one reason you have to reach out to the Afghans, build greater friendships and bonds with the Afghans as a way of kind of heading off these insider attacks.

But General Jim Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, the top officer in the Marine Corps, he wrote a letter to all Marines last week raising this issue and saying expect more of these attacks.

CONAN: And if you institute more security, obviously the level of distrust goes up. On the other hand, how do you hand somebody a gun with a belief that they might turn it on you?

BOWMAN: It's really difficult, and again, they say you have to get to know these guys better, you know, work with them, build these bonds. But the Americans are taking, you know, more precautions now. They're making sure that all American forces now have loaded weapons with them at all times, and they've started - actually, months ago, when I was over in Afghan back in May, they started this program called the Guardian Angels.

It's basically armed Americans who show up at all meetings between U.S. officers and Afghans, and they stand on one side of the room with their weapon watching this meeting. And one general told me, you know, it's kind of uncomfortable because you've been dealing with this officer maybe for months or years, and suddenly you show up with your own armed guard. He said it's just kind of odd.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, I know you've got responsibilities to file for another program here on this network, so we appreciate your time today. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: Okay, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A. We turn now to Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for the New Yorker. He's been covering the war in Afghanistan for years and wrote about his latest visit to that country in the magazine last month in a piece titled "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.


CONAN: And I wonder, one of the conclusions you came to in your piece was indeed that it is both the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence forces, services, that are infiltrating people into the Afghan army.

FILKINS: They are, and there is a lot of evidence of that. But I think - I mean, I think we should be clear, or at least as clear as we can be, about what we think we know about what's happening in these - what they call green-on-blue attacks.

You know, this is a public relations disaster, I mean among other things, for both the Afghan government and the U.S. military, and they don't know what to say about it. I mean, what can you say about it?

And - but the evidence that they - the evidence that the U.S. military has been able to gather itself, they've investigated every one of these, and we now have 40 dead Americans this year, or 40 NATO dead this year in green-on-blue attacks, is that these attacks are not - only a small percentage of these attacks are due to Taliban infiltration, that the overwhelming majority of these, 90 percent are due to sort of personal reasons, you know, angry Afghans, insulted Afghans.

And in many ways that's more troubling. I mean, that's a more - you know, it's one thing if you say, well, it's just the bad guys are getting in. You can stop that. But what happens when it's, you know, the country you're trying to help? And that's what's so worrisome about this, that the overwhelming majority of these attacks are being carried out not by the Taliban, by just ordinary Afghans who are signing up for the army and the police.

CONAN: And, in fact, the conclusion that you come to is the infiltration by the Pakistani intelligence services in the Taliban is not necessarily for right now, not necessarily for tactical attacks on American soldiers, but for the future, when Americans leave.

FILKINS: Yeah, I mean, look, the ISI - that's the Pakistani intelligence agency - the Inter-Services Intelligence in the Taliban. Look, they're a malevolent force in Afghanistan. There's no question about it. They do a lot of bad stuff that hurts the American and the NATO effort there, and they're not good people.

But right - I mean the question is - and I think - the question I tried to address in my piece and what I tried to show is what happens when the Americans are gone, and that day is coming very quickly. We're due to stop fighting there at the end of 2014, all combat troops out. So some number will remain that hasn't been decided yet, you know, probably for many, many years after, maybe 10,000 Americans, maybe 15, maybe more.

But what's happening now, and I think this is what - you know, whether it was infiltration or the militias or anything, the Afghans are getting ready for that day, and they're kind of making the calculations in their minds, and they're kind of lining up, and it's changing the politics, and you can see that.

They are getting ready for the day when we are no longer there.

CONAN: And you describe the various forces that participated in the Afghan civil war that largely broke down, yes, to some degree, ideological or religious but mostly along ethnic lines, the various groups that we've learned more about these past 11 years, and that indeed the various militias of those various ethnic groups are pulling themselves together and preparing for the day when an unresolved war is resumed.

FILKINS: That's basically it. I mean, if you remember - I mean, the history here is really - I mean, it's very, very interesting, but it's just very instructive. So, I mean everything - you know, everything starts in 1979. It's a long time ago, but it's very, very relevant. It's kind of an unbroken chain.

The Soviet Union, then intact, invaded Afghanistan. They were there for 10 years. They lost tens of thousands of men. They failed. They left in 1989. And they had built an army of their own. They were essentially - they tried to do essentially what we are trying to do right now, which is to get out but to leave a functioning state, an Afghan state that can stand on its own.

And basically what happened - it's fascinating when you look at this period - the Soviet Union built a pretty good Afghan army. It was very tough and very resilient, and they fought very well, and they held their own. But what happened was the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

And so the Afghan army collapsed. They stopped getting paid, the ammunition stopped coming in. The Afghan army collapsed right after that. You had a long and terrible Afghan civil war which really lasted, remarkably - it brings us to the present day - the civil war really lasted until 9/11. That's basically what happened.

The Taliban were one of the factions in the civil war. They controlled about 90 percent of the country. And - but the situation in the country, I mean I was there then, was so anarchic and so chaotic, and there was no functioning state, that basically al-Qaeda was able to kind of enter that space and plan the attacks.

And so I think what everybody - nobody wants a civil war. Everybody wants to get out of Afghanistan, of course, and - but no one wants to leave a situation that might start to look like 2001 again. And so that's the worry.

CONAN: More with Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker magazine in a moment about Afghanistan after America leaves. If you served in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan troops, tell us what's working and what isn't. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. After his latest trip to Afghanistan in May, Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker magazine wrote: After 11 years, nearly 2,000 Americans killed, 16,000 Americans wounded, nearly $400 billion spent and more than 12,000 Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this. The United States is leaving, mission not accomplished.

Objectives once deemed indispensible, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, has been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven't worked or because there's no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk.

By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it's a good bet that in some remote valley, even al-Qaida, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.

That's an excerpt from a piece that ran last month in the New York headlined "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" If you served in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan troops, tell us what's working, what isn't, 800-989-8255 is the number. Email us, talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

And let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Matthew, he's calling us from Louisville.

MATTHEW: Hey, how are you doing, Neal? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MATTHEW: Hey, I just wanted to make the observation that - I served in Afghanistan for a good part of '09 through '10, and I previously served in Iraq twice. And while I was in Afghanistan, because I had been in Iraq, I was very curious as to see a lot of - what the local Afghans' opinions were of what we were doing over there.

And I - we employed several local individuals to be truck drivers for us and haul construction goods around the area. And a lot of the stuff, information that they would convey to me, was that they were concerned about joining the Afghan army because they would have to be gone away from their families for extended durations, whereas they could work with us and be gone for a week at the most and be back home to take care of their families and actually provide for them the way they would and meet a lot of those more immediate needs and assess things for themselves, and not think about the greater good of their country.

CONAN: So they were looking out - of course the first thing is - for themselves and their families.

MATTHEW: Yes, yeah, that's the impression that I got from the majority of them.

CONAN: And not interested in joining the Afghan military?

MATTHEW: For the majority of them that I talked to, they had no concern about Afghanistan as a country, but rather their more immediate need of their families.

CONAN: And can you tell us what part of the country that was in?

MATTHEW: That was in southern Afghanistan, but we employed people throughout the entire country. But the majority of them came from around the Kandahar area.

CONAN: So they would have been Pashtuns?

MATTHEW: The majority of them, yes, sir.

CONAN: And Dexter Filkins, Pashtuns underrepresented in the Afghan army.

FILKINS: Yes, but it's interesting what Matthew says. I mean, it's absolutely I found the same thing when I was there. You know, this is a country that's been at war for 33 years, you know, forever, more than a generation, and the country's destroyed, basically, the society's destroyed. It's been torn to pieces.

Typical Afghan, yeah, he's got to take care of himself. He's got to take care of his family, and that's been incredibly hard to do. And he's got to survive. And yeah, the concept of Afghanistan, that's - you know, that's way down the list. And that's the hard part. There's a kind of - there's a survivor mentality, which is - you know, it makes building an army really, really hard because you've got to get people thinking about, you know, more than just themselves and more than about survival, and that's why it's so hard.

CONAN: In your piece - and thanks very much for the call, Matthew.

MATTHEW: All right, thank you.

CONAN: In your piece you describe an Afghan lieutenant who is probably the model of what the United States would like to see that army become, but a man who faces incredible difficulties.

FILKINS: Yes, it was Lieutenant Kassam(ph). Yeah, he was great. He was a tough dude, and he was getting after it, he really was. But yeah, he had a hard time. He was having a hard time out there. He - you know, I was in this Afghan patrol base, really small, you know, in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it looked like the moon. You know, it looked like the Sea of Tranquility.

And we had no electricity, we had no water. They didn't have machine guns. I mean, it was - you know, it was endless. They didn't have radios. They couldn't call the Americans for help. Yeah, so it was depressing because, I mean, here was a guy that was really motivated, really good, tough, 24 years old, really dynamic, really going after the Taliban. And he was alone, you know, he was isolated, he was by himself.

And it wasn't hard to imagine an outpost like that getting overrun by the Taliban just because of that, because they're so alone.

CONAN: Let's get Simian(ph) on the line, he's calling from Grand Rapids.

SIMIAN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

SIMIAN: Hey, I just - a little background on me, I actually served in Afghanistan last year and got home in February of this year, and I served in the Kandahar area, and it was basically our job to train an Afghan SWAT force, it's a PRC, a provincial response company, in the Kandahar area.

CONAN: And so what was that unit like?

SIMIAN: It was like for your guest there, he was talking about an Afghan, we actually had one that it was - out of all of them, there's one that I would trust with my life, Shahab(ph). And it was very - like, talking to him through an interpreter, it was very difficult to hear his story, just about how much he cares about his country and - but the lack of support that he gets from the people that are around him, the people that he's in charge, the people who are in charge of the PRC in Kandahar.

And also when it comes to...

CONAN: The PRC is the Provincial Reconstruction Council?

SIMIAN: It was a provincial response company.


SIMIAN: Basically what happens there is if there's an attack in the city, it's - it was our job to go with them as first responders.

CONAN: And so one guy who really had it together, but the majority?

SIMIAN: Yeah, yeah, it's - just basically talking to him, it was kind of very difficult to hear how much he loved his country but the lack of support - just as your guest said - that he gets from the people that he leads and also the people that are in charge of him.

CONAN: And so how would you gauge the abilities of that unit by the time he left?

SIMIAN: It was difficult. Another thing that was - when it comes to what works and what doesn't, is the lack of consistency of American units that come in. Because we worked with a Canadian Special Forces unit that was training them first, and then we came in and took over from them. And the way that they handled things was, basically, just give them food, give them fuel, give them water, just give them everything so the Afghans were reliant on them.

And then we came in, and we took that away and made them self-reliant. We, you know, showed them the way you have to go through the MOI, the Ministry of Interior, in order to get that food, water and fuel. And then the unit that took over from us went back to, well, you know, it's kind of difficult going through the Afghan government, so here's water, here's fuel, here's food.

So I mean, when it comes to what works and what doesn't, like there has to be a consistency of them - consistency of leadership from the NATO troops to them to help create a self-sustainable source.

CONAN: Dexter, it's interesting, again going back to your piece, you wrote about a policy of forcing the Afghan troops and police, more and more, to, well, perhaps a bit of a patronizing characterization, to grow up, to stop acting like teenagers.

FILKINS: Kind of, yeah. I think that was - I mean, that's precisely the way the colonel put it. And it's actually not - it does sound patronizing, but it's pretty accurate. And I - you know, I think what's troubling about all this stuff, you know, like the conversation that the speaker just - that we just had, you know, we're at year 11 here. I mean, we've been doing this for 11 years. And it's still not there yet.

You know, it's like the training wheels are still on, you know, and it's like when's it going to work. And I don't know. And I think it's not clear that it's going to. And I think what's troubling, you know, when you're there, and you see this, and you can see that we're leaving, I mean we are leaving.

You know, when I got there, I was in Eastern Afghanistan, I got to an American base in Paktika that they literally were bulldozing as I got there. We're pulling out. We're pulling out whether it works or not. You know, so, you know, I hope it works, you know, but we're taking off.

And so what happens if it doesn't work a year from now? I mean, what happens if it's kind of manifestly failing, or what happens two years from now if the Taliban start making, you know, large territorial gains, or the Afghan army starts to come apart, or the state starts to come apart? What happens then?

Because I think if you look at the situation now, and it's hard to predict the future, but if you look ahead, it's pretty troubling. And I'm not - it's just, you know, what do we do then?

CONAN: Simian, thanks very much.

SIMIAN: Absolutely. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Dexter, let's go back to history. You said earlier that in - at 9/11, 10 percent of the country was still not in Taliban hands. That was in the control of the Tajiks. Ahmad Shah Massoud was the commander then, killed just before 9/11. And that - you wrote in your piece the Tajiks are alarmed at the prospect that the Taliban would come back, either as part of a negotiated agreement, as part of a peace deal, or that they would make huge military gains after the United States and NATO troops leave and are preparing for the day when they can resume their militias, build up their own forces again and retreat to the Punjab(ph).

FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, I - that, you know, it's a paradox, and it's really hard. On one hand, the United States is pushing very hard to make some kind of deal with the Taliban. I mean, it may not work, but they're pushing very hard to kind of, you know, make some kind of arrangement. And that might be a really significant deal. I mean, it could be something like you bring the Taliban into the government or part of the government, you know, in the east or the south or whatever, and they stop fighting. And that sounds really good, right?

But then you have the northern part of the country, where basically the minorities are, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, Hazaras. They hear something like that, and they say absolutely no way. You make a deal with the Taliban, and we fight. And that's the hard part. So on one hand, you try to make a deal, and on the other hand, you've got half a country saying, no, absolutely no way. We're not taking a deal.

And so it's hard. It's really hard right now, and that's what they're trying to finesse. But these groups like the Tajiks that you mentioned and the Hazaras, I mean, this is, you know, half the country, basically. They were scarred by this civil war. They were scarred by their treatment under the Taliban. I mean, a lot of these groups were massacred. And they're not going to let it happen again. And so that's, you know, it's like once burned, you know, and so they're getting ready. And that's the tricky part here that we're trying to finesse as we leave.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, staff writer with The New Yorker magazine, with us from our bureau in New York, last in Afghanistan in May. His piece "After America" ran last month in The New Yorker. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Jack is on the line, calling us from Traverse City in Michigan.

JACK: Thank you very much. And I want to congratulate your guest on the great work he's done in the past, and I'm looking forward to this new article in The New Yorker.

But I was the political adviser to the NATO operational commander from 2002 to 2010, and visited Afghanistan 40 times. I think what he just said is the critical point, that the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras are not going to live under an Afghan - a Pashtun-led, Taliban-dominated government. So they have to settle that, and that has nothing to do with U.S. troops. The U.S. troops cannot settle that problem.

And so what I would say we've begun a process through our Special Forces of training Afghan local police. It is not respected by some people because it is, in fact, creating local militias again, or strengthening local militias that are already there. The idea of a national army dominated by non-Pashtuns is simply a nonstarter in Afghanistan. It always has been, always will be. And it's not something that U.S. Marines and soldiers, sailors and airmen can solve.

So I would say we should drastically cut back our patrolling in Afghanistan, let the Afghans do more of the patrolling. I would say almost all the patrolling should be done by Afghans. Secondly, we can pull back to our bases and focus on this idea of training local policemen or giving them the equipment they need, and we should set a time limit much sooner than the end of 2014, because I just don't see the point of having a couple of hundred more U.S. soldiers killed and tens of thousands wounded and otherwise harmed simply to perpetuate this whole really unworkable plan. You know, we tried to build an Afghan national security force in our own image, and it is not working. And it will not work by the end of 2014.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, you write in your piece that, yes, the U.S. Special Forces are, in many cases, working with these local forces, militias, and some places local police, as well, but they're not necessarily the same guys.

FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, boy, that was very well-put, and it's...


FILKINS: ...it's hard to argue with that description, as sobering as it was. But I think what worries me - I mean, I think you're absolutely right about your diagnosis that the national army is really problematic. It's, you know, everybody hoped that it can kind of unite the country, but it's not. You know, it's kind of a reflection of the country, and the country's very divided. So maybe these local militias will work, and maybe they will, you know. I think what I saw when I was driving around Kunduz - which is a province in the north where there's a lot of local militias - they're kind of out of control.

And, you know, they're doing what militias do. You know, they kind of take over their area, and then, you know, they were taxing people and they were robbing people and they were fighting each other. And, you know, and that is a little scary, because essentially what the picture that emerges from that is a kind of partition, like an effective partition of the country. And maybe there's no - maybe there's nothing we can do, you know? Maybe we really don't - maybe there's nothing we can do, and we should just bail. But...

JACK: You know, maybe those - I met Governor Atta in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2004, and he ran the militia there then, and he still runs the militia there now. And we are there at his whim. I don't think - you know, we have to sort of stop dreaming about an Afghanistan that will not come about by the end of 2014.

The problem that I see is that, you know, what is the logic in perpetuating this struggle for the U.S. forces? Because, as you said, there may be a partition by - a de facto partition after we leave, anyway. Well, maybe we could help organize that and accelerate it. And if the Afghans want to cooperate with each other, they will. And if they won't, there's nothing we can do to change that.

And to me, therefore, the lives that are going to be wasted in the next two-and-a-half years, that's almost the length of the Korean War. And we now have General Allen saying, oh, I'm looking at what the mission will be after 2014. Well, I got a mission plan: get out, and get out now.

FILKINS: Yeah. I think, I mean, you know, again, that's incredibly compelling. I mean - and there may be no answer except to leave. But I think what worries me is that how do we prevent - you know, how do we prevent a replay of 2001 all over again if the country disintegrates into anarchy?

CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for the call. And Dexter Filkins, thank you, as always, for your time. We appreciate it.

FILKINS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker magazine, with us from our bureau in New York. Coming up: West Nile virus and the worst year on record. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.