A deadly denouement for foreign troops in Afghanistan
The Netherlands pulled out of Afghanistan two years ago. Canada brought home its contingent last year. France, the fifth-largest contributor of troops to the International Security Assistance Force, will exit the war by the end of this year. New Zealand soldiers will be home by April.
Commitment to the 130,000-strong force fighting to drive Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from their Afghan strongholds has been eroding since the U.S. announcement three years ago that defense and security will be handed over to Afghans by the end of 2014. Analysts say that proclamation of a mission deadline was premature and fired a starting gun for a haphazard exodus driven by domestic political pressures rather than meeting benchmarks for a mission accomplished.
The U.S.-led campaign to defeat insurgents has had its successes, and life for average Afghans has markedly improved since the U.S.-led invasion nearly 11 years ago, security experts say. But the ultimate goal of leaving a stable Afghanistan when the drawdown is finished is now imperiled by a deadly phenomenon many see as inspired by the signaled exits: Afghans in the green uniforms of police and militia recruits have been turning their guns on their foreign trainers.
Of the 237 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year, according to icasualties.org, at least 40 died at the hands of supposedly allied Afghans. Some of the turncoats are suspected Taliban infiltrators, while others appear to be acting on individual grievances and rising anti-American sentiment.
"Green-on-blue killings are as devastating a tactic in Afghanistan as were IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in Iraq. This is the most dangerous tactical challenge that U.S. forces have faced in the war," Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security said of the rash of "insider" killings.
The betrayals throw into question a core U.S. conviction that Afghans are loyal partners eager to learn from foreign soldiers how to defend and protect their homeland, Exum said. They also wear down the willingness of ISAF's 40-plus contributing nations to send troops into a volatile and dangerous end game, he said.
"There's been a lot of patience from the United States and other troop-contributing nations to send soldiers to fight and sometimes die in the face of combat with the Taliban, but there's a lot less patience with sending soldiers to be shot in the back by their Afghan colleagues," Exum said.
Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute who briefs U.S. troops ahead of deployment on the social complexities of his native Afghanistan, likewise sees the insider killings as a consequence of Afghans fearing that the foreigners are heading for the exits.
"With the announcement of a withdrawal timeline, you see a lot of people hedging their bets," he said of tribal leaders worried about Taliban fighters regaining sway over their territory. "It has emboldened the Taliban. Their strategy now is just to wait out the coalition forces."
Majidyar cites the impending departures of French and New Zealand troops as decisions driven by domestic political concerns "rather than a policy based on security realities on the ground." That sends a bad message, he added, to both friendly and enemy forces.
Security force trainees are ordinary young Afghan men, with friends and relatives who sympathize with the Taliban, notes Sarah Chayes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She has spent most of the last decade in Afghanistan on development projects and has worked as an advisor to the U.S. military.
"It’s just demographics," she said of recruits who mingle with Taliban supporters when they visit their home villages or talk over tea. "Everyone is vulnerable to being recruited by extremists because, frankly, the propaganda is fairly convincing: The [Afghan] government is profoundly and abusively corrupt in a structured way that the international community hasn’t paid much attention to."
David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies sees the insider killings as a sign that the U.S. strategy to hand over security to allied regional militias is doomed, as was the Soviet effort in the 1980s to mold Afghanistan into an ideological ally.
"A political option needs to be pursued," he said, embracing a Rand Corp. blueprint for Afghan peace talks drafted last year. It proposes U.N. oversight of a forum including the government of President Hamid Karzai, rival political forces and the Taliban, with the United States and Afghanistan's neighbors conducting parallel talks.
Cortright acknowledges there is little appetite in the international community for any new Afghan initiative, especially one including the Taliban and in the throes of a U.S. presidential election. But he argues that the social gains achieved over the last decade are at risk if Afghanistan collapses into civil war when the foreign troops leave, and that the chances of the military mission delivering a lasting peace are "close to zero."
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Photo: A U.S. soldier rests at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Credit: Jose Cabezas/AFP/GettyImages