Warning in ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks

“Green on Blue” attacks in which Afghan soldiers kill their presumed allies, i.e. U.S. and NATO soldiers, have become a growing problem as the Afghan War drags on, closing in on its eleventh year, a warning sign for all long-term foreign occupations, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Surely one of the most disconcerting trends in the now nearly 11-year-old U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan has been the increase in attacks on NATO and especially American military personnel by supposed allies among the Afghan government forces.

In the first eight months of 2012, 39 NATO service members have been killed in such “green-on-blue” attacks, which is more than in all of 2011 and more than for the entire period of 2007 through 2010.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai greets U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on Aug, 21, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Roger Duncan)

The phenomenon has become such a concern for U.S. commanders that, in an approach that could be called Curtis Sliwa with firepower, they have instituted a “Guardian Angel” program in which one or two American soldiers have the job of keeping an eye on their Afghan allies in every joint mission or meeting, with instructions to shoot first if another such attack starts to unfold.

Post-attack investigations have determined that only a small proportion of the incidents have involved infiltration by the Taliban of government forces or installations. The large majority of the attacks have been the work of individuals driven by whatever combination of emotions and beliefs would bring them to commit such an act.

A U.S. officer tried to make sense of the attacks by observing, “There are simply more opportunities now because we are partnering so heavily.” But that can hardly explain all or even most of the upsurge in the killings.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta telephoned President Hamid Karzai to discuss the problem, calling for more intensive counterintelligence work and more thorough vetting of recruits into the Afghan army. Better vetting may identify some would-be G.I.-killers, but probably not most of them. It is doubtful that many of the perpetrators had previous patterns of behavior that would enable them to be flagged. The lethal actions of many of them were probably at least as much impulsive as planned.

We are seeing an almost inevitable by-product of the long-term conduct of military operations on someone else’s soil, especially when the someone else is of a markedly different culture. People do not like what comes to look like a foreign military occupation. They do not like the collateral damage and casualties that occur even when those conducting the military operations try to conduct them with care.

Being the lead military force in a long-running conflict means one gets blamed for much of the misery associated with the conflict. What may have initially been a welcome gets worn out over time, and 11 years is a long time.

The costs of such sentiments manifest themselves not only as lethal attacks among ostensible allies on military bases, and such sentiments are not unique to the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may demonstrate how easily this kind of ill will, among those the United States is supposedly trying to help, can arise against U.S. military operations, given that Afghanistan was once an island of mostly positive feelings toward the United States in a sea of negative feelings throughout most of the Muslim world.

The problem we are seeing with the green-on-blue attacks is a symptom of a deeper problem that is not likely to improve as the expedition in Afghanistan continues. It also flags a dimension that should be taken into account whenever the application of U.S. military force elsewhere is being considered.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Warning in ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks

  1. Byron
    August 22, 2012 at 13:52

    It is high time that we unveil the ultimate weapon on these ungrateful heathens – THE CHRISTIAN GOD – oh boy, he’ll show’ em. We can withdraw all the soldiers and replace them with missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses,Mormons, Baptists, Catholics – they all got the sword of the true god, right?. In no time those Afgan’s won’t anything more than to eat junk food, watch FOX News, build mega churches and shop at Walmart. We won’t have any more problems with them.

  2. Hillary
    August 21, 2012 at 20:23

    Paul R. Pillar

    Surely one of the most disconcerting trends in the now nearly 11-year-old U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan is that the good old USA still expects to be welcomed as occupiers.

    Surely one of the most disconcerting trends in the now nearly 11-year-old U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan is that the good old USA still expects to be welcomed as occupiers.

    Originally the Taliban requested evidence that Bin Ladin was involved in 9/11 — the FBI had NONE — and none was offered but the good old USA started its reign of terror and occupation in Afghanistan.

    That after the nearly 11-year-old U.S. military destruction , murder and occupation of Afghanistan “dumbed down” Americans are still convinced that that a bunch of incompetent Muslims with incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary brought down the twin towers & Building Seven and damaged the Pentagon is an insult to anyone with intelligence .


  3. incontinent reader
    August 21, 2012 at 18:19

    Professor Pillar, Stephen Walt wrote a column recently in Foreign Policy that is a good companion piece to yours. What I see it come down to is that the planners will continue to play their losing geopolitical chess game against China and Russia, while our energy and mining companies, and military contractors, and “our Turks” (who want more oil and gas from Central Asia piped through Ceyhan) and “our Israelis” (who are in deep in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) will continue to advocate remaining in Afghanistan for their pipeline and mineral extraction concessions (TAPI, et al) and the troops on the ground will more and become cannon fodder in the anxious dead of night in yet another “People’s War”. Our boys put their lives- not only their emotional stability- on the line and their houses at risk of foreclosure back home, while the big boys milk the system. Not much to recommend the policy except the promise of big dollars to the few with big influence. (Oh, let’s not forget that it also gives us another foothold to destabilize Balochistan vis à vis Iran and Pakistan, and any attempt by those fellows to complete the IPI pipeline.) Don’t mean to be flip, but it is hard to separate those with sticky fingers from the allure and promise of big bucks.

    • incontinent reader
      August 21, 2012 at 18:31

      One more point, a spreadsheet to estimate the economic returns would be helpful information if one is interested in assessing the “economic value” of the life of each soldier that is cannon fodder for the enterprise. Also helpful would be a list of all those at the top who are responsible and would profit, with their names and addresses passed on to every soldier that is so cynically exploited.

      • F. G. Sanford
        August 21, 2012 at 23:23

        Yours is the rational point that everyone ignores. If you factor in the cost of maintaining our military presence in the region, the real cost of oil is probably about $1000 per barrel. But Americans would prefer to remain stupid, believing that we’re preserving peace and defending our “allies”. We’re going to the poor-house, but Afghanistan will still have plenty of heroin and Iraq will still have plenty of oil. Meanwhile, the Israelis are laughing all the way to the bank, and Iran is the roadblock that just won’t go away. The whole game revolves around “Pipelinestan” and the profits the vested industrialists stand to make. Our military-industrial complex is like a McDonalds faced with a shortage of beef. They could switch to making pizza, but they’ve decided to rustle cattle instead. The military buzz words kind of mirror the hypocrisy. There’s the “win-win situation” (a bullshit phrase if ever there was one), the “force multiplier” (what happens if you multiply a force by a fraction?), and now, we’ve got “partnering”. We think that our oil just happens to be buried under their sand. But by golly, we’re gonna “Pard’ner Up” with ’em, and rustle us up some of it. Too bad they can’t be more “friendly-like”. I’m wondering how far down the drain we need to go before our government “partners” with us.

        • incontinent reader
          August 22, 2012 at 02:06

          Your comments always hit the nail on the head, and, your use of language is not only brilliant but a delight to read. How about calling the new “partnering” what it really is- i.e. ‘gang rape’, or, in keeping with your Wild West analogy, ‘lynch mob’? When I heard Panetta on C-SPAN advocate ‘partnering’ in his birthday speech at the US Institute of Peace, he also invoked the name of Dean Acheson, (Hillary months earlier was calling on the spirit of George Marshall) and I began to wonder how deluded these people had become.

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