Violence is in Afghanistan’s bloodstream. Even Afghans admit this. “If you [Americans] are not here, we will fight each other,” said an Afghan parliamentarian, Moammad Farhad Azimi, a passionate Tajik with deep insecurities about tribal Pashtun dominance, with whom I had dinner in Kabul on Sunday night.
And since Afghanistan is still in the middle of a war, nothing seemed amiss when Lt. Col. Andy Jordan, a British Royal military police officer, solemnly instructed a group of visiting reporters, including me, that the Afghan National Police training center we went to see on the outskirts of Kabul over the weekend was considered a “target.” Jordan, a red-faced no-nonsense type in the best tradition of the British army, said that if an attack occurred we were to scurry into a nearby protective room where NATO had stocked “enough weapons to start World War III.”
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What did surprise me a little was that Jordan later explained he wasn’t talking about a Taliban attack on the base from the outside. He was actually worried about the danger of what has come to be known as a “green on blue” attack--that is, Afghan trainees at the base killing their Western trainers.
Such incidents involving rogue Afghans, which accelerated after the disclosure in February that U.S. troops had destroyed some old Korans, have rocked U.S. and NATO strategists in recent months. Nothing has fired skepticism about Afghanistan’s future more in Washington and other Western capitals than the shootings of U.S. and NATO soldiers by their Afghan charges. Because if we can’t train up the Afghans to fight their own fight, then it’s clear that America’s longest war will have been in vain.
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Yet the incidents have done little so far to alter America’s 2014 departure timetable, I am told. Ryan Crocker, America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, insisted in an interview on Sunday that plans were going forward and officers and advisers to ministers were back at work, aided by a new set of precautions. “We’re going to be increasing the number of our embedded advisers [in Afghan units] as we go forward, not decreasing them,” Crocker said. “It hasn’t affected the overall tenor” of the International Security Assistance Force campaign. Crocker added that “the Afghans do take this seriously and are horrified by it.” When Gen. John Allen, the ISAF commander, pulled ISAF advisers from Afghan government ministries after an Afghan killed two American officers, “all they wanted to do was to get back in,” Crocker said.
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Australian Brig. Roger Noble, Allen’s deputy chief of staff in ISAF, said in Kabul over the weekend that while the killings are a “critical issue,” that was only because they had provoked fears in ISAF that such incidents would inspire groundswells of end-the-war sentiment at home in NATO capitals, forcing an early pullout. The bigger concern is that the news of the killings will sap the “cohesion” of the coalition, he said.
But in the field, Noble said, ISAF and the Afghan National Army are responding to the new threat in practical ways. “The general consensus is you can’t stop it,” he said, “but you can really squeeze it down and mitigate it.” One worry is that the handover plans call for small numbers of isolated NATO officers to spend time in small outposts with their Afghan military charges. So ISAF has instituted a raft of “protection measures around the way we interact,” Noble said. NATO soldiers have taken to designating a colleague their “guardian angel” so as to keep tabs on each other when engaging with Afghan forces—in other words, one soldier stands in the back of the room and watches hawk-like while another engages with the Afghans. It’s not unlike what the British did in occupied Northern Ireland during the Troubles with the Irish Republican Army, he said.
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Next, ISAF soldiers who are embedded in Afghan units are inside a “medevac intelligence communications bubble,” so they are in constant communication and have access to up-to-date intel and medical evacuation. “We haven’t found any glaring pattern” in the attacks, Noble added. Most of them seem involve personal motivation, in other words angry Afghans with a vendetta of some kind stemming from a personal dispute, sometimes with another Afghan—“Maybe his girlfriend’s father disowned him,” Noble said—but which a gun and the presence of foreigners can misdirect in tragic ways. “It’s actually a very small percentage, in terms of the campaign and its execution,” he said.
I have come here on a weeklong trip to investigate whether Afghanistan can ever be saved from what sometimes seems like its inevitable fate: a permanent state of war. The U.S. invaded after 9/11, and then spent most of the decade getting Afghanistan wrong. The result was more war. Even the geography seems to dictate this country’s destiny: Afghanistan’s soaring mountains and arrow-like ridges—theterrain might be considered God’s gift to guerrilla warfare—and tribal and ethnic disunity explain why war has been so enduring here. The role that Pakistan continues to play in providing a safe haven to the Taliban across the border is also a “very significant” unsolved problem, Crocker said.
Yet in a series of interviews, Crocker and other senior U.S. and NATO officials insisted that President Obama was right when he declared, in his speech in Kabul last week announcing the U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership, that “the tide has turned” and “we broke the Taliban’s momentum.” Gen. Allen, in an interview with me and a small group of reporters at his southern regional command in the southern province of Uruzgan on Monday, said that the Taliban are getting tired of fighting despite contrary statements that they are only getting stronger, and more are giving up to newly credible Afghan forces that will be supported by Washington for many years after 2014. “If your narrative is to just wait us out, you’re going to be waiting decades,” he said. Is it true? Is there any hope? I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the days ahead.