Afghanistan: 'Green on Blue' Killings Explained

Afghan National Army recruits in a training exercise. Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

The toll keeps rising. By the time this issue of Newsweek went to press, members and civilian employees of Afghanistan's security forces had killed no fewer than 40 coalition troops this year—at least 10 of the dead, all of them Americans, in the first three weeks of August alone. The count has already passed last year's total of 35 dead, and it's reached fully double the figure for all of 2010. But as worried as U.S. commanders are by the growing number of insider attacks—"green-on-blue killings," they're sometimes called—Major Hasanzada (as he asks us to call him) says the trend doesn't surprise him. "I understand why our men are shooting U.S. and NATO soldiers," the Afghan National Army officer tells Newsweek. "I too have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave towards my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture. Too many of them are racist, arrogant, and simply don't respect us."

Those festering resentments are becoming a serious threat to America's withdrawal plans. A problem that emerged as a few isolated violent incidents in 2005 is now undermining the trust that's essential if allied forces hope to prepare the Afghans to shoulder their country's security responsibilities by the 2014 withdrawal deadline. In the past year or so, coalition troops have been working more closely than ever with Afghan troops. In fact, some U.S. commanders partly blame the rising frequency of insider attacks on this closer partnership between coalition and Afghan forces on the ground.

But these days the partnership is strained. The Americans and other coalition members are busy watching their backs, just in case some disgruntled Afghan recruit decides to avenge some insult, whether imagined or real. The threat is anything but imaginary. Several of the men under Major Hasanzada's command have told him that they too have thought about shooting their foreign trainers and counterparts, he says: "One soldier told me, 'In my heart I want to empty my bullets into their chests.' He has not done anything yet, but we are watching him carefully."

The trouble is that the estrangement is feeding on itself. A 48-year-old Afghan Army colonel confirms that the once cordial relations between Afghan and U.S. troops, both on the frontlines and in the barracks, have deteriorated badly in the past year. A veteran soldier who served under the communist-run government in the 1980s and early 1990s, he says the Americans have worsened the divide recently by shunning the Afghans, largely for fear of insider attacks. "We had a very good understanding with each other for years, but in the past year the Americans seem reluctant to deal with us," he tells Newsweek. (Since he is not authorized to speak to the press, he asks that we not disclose his location or his unit's designation.) "Our social relations and professional cooperation are getting worse," he says.

The colonel looks back fondly on the fraternization and camaraderie he used to enjoy with the Americans. "After duties were done, we used to go to their side of the base, and they used to come to our barracks for talks and meals," he recalls. "Now we rarely meet except for professional duties." Major Hasanzada says he also has been aware of the Americans' retreat: "I think these [insider] attacks have reduced, if not ended, our social relations. I think the Americans do not see any solution except to keep their distance."

The colonel says he understands the Americans' standoffishness: "One of our soldiers shot a number of U.S. soldiers in Paktika in broad daylight and escaped," he says, refusing to be more specific about the circumstances. "After investigating, we found that the soldier had Taliban connections and had joined the army to kill Americans." Although coalition commanders have said that only one green-on-blue attack in 10 is committed by Taliban infiltrators, the colonel says he thinks the number may be much higher. "The number of recruits who have a Taliban consciousness and are joining the army with the aim of looking for American blood should not be underestimated," he says. "The Taliban are hunting two birds with one arrow: they are killing coalition soldiers while at the same time hurting working relations between our allied forces."

That's exactly what the insurgents are hoping for. "These [insider] attacks are perhaps our most effective tool to create a golden gap between the Americans and the Afghans," a senior Taliban commander in northern Kunduz province tells Newsweek. "We are aware that the Afghan security forces are getting stronger, so this is best way for us to weaken and divide them from the Americans." He claims that the insurgents have a carefully planned strategy to infiltrate the Afghan ranks, not only to stage insider hits on allied soldiers but also to undermine morale. "We are working like termites, eating into this already rotten wooden structure," he says.

The colonel may well be right that the 10 percent estimate is low. In a video press conference last week, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, said as many as a quarter of the insider killings could be the work of Taliban infiltrators or troops who are acting under Taliban coercion. It's impossible to give more than a rough guess, he explained: most green-on-blue shooters don't live to explain themselves. Nevertheless, he said, the majority of the attacks so far have apparently been motivated by rage rather than ideology.

“Who knows what is really in the young man’s heart and soul?” the colonel asks. Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

The rage keeps growing—and not only among Afghans in uniform. Last year an Afghan Air Force pilot, a 20-year veteran named Ahmad Gul, gunned down eight U.S. Air Force flight instructors and an American civilian contractor after an argument at Kabul International Airport. The pilot's brother, Dr. Mohammad Hassan Sahibi, was quoted at the time as denying that Gul had any ties to the insurgency. He blaming financial problems for the shooting. Reached by phone last week, the doctor may have spoken more candidly when asked what had caused his brother's outburst. "You are journalist—you should know what's going on in this country," he told Newsweek's reporter. "My brother did it because of what's going on in Afghanistan!" With that, he cut off his cellphone.

Major Hasanzada doesn't hate America. Far from it, he says: like most Afghans he appreciates the sacrifices that have been made by U.S. troops and the enormous military and financial support the country has poured into Afghanistan since 2001. "America has done a lot for us," Hasanzada says. "But the terrible, individual acts of a few U.S. soldiers have caused enormous collective damage to our relations."

Afghans—especially Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group—tend to be deeply sensitive to any perceived slights to their religion or to their conservative culture. They have little if any tolerance for anyone who transgresses religious and tribal mores and values. Ignorance of their principles is no excuse. Ethnic Pashtuns, in whose homelands the war is largely being fought, will do just about anything to honor and protect a guest under their time-honored Pashtunwali customs. But there are strict boundaries even to that code of honor. "Even for guests there are limitations," says Major Hasanzada. "They must respect our Islamic values and cultural traditions." There are no exceptions. And forgiveness is not an option, no matter what the offender's explanation may be.

Most Americans may have forgotten the religious and cultural offenses by U.S. troops that have shocked ordinary Afghans over the past year, but Afghans can't forget them. There was the discovery of charred copies of the Quran in a garbage dump at Bagram Air Base that sparked several days of anti-American riots in February. There was the infamous and inexplicable rampage by a U.S. sergeant who allegedly slaughtered 16 women, children, and old men as they slept and then attempted to burn their corpses. There was the video of U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters—and the photos of U.S. troops showing off body parts taken from dead insurgents. It made no difference that the bodies were those of enemy fighters: in Afghanistan the dead are not to be desecrated.

The list of grievances doesn't end there. Many Afghan civilians also have a visceral hatred of the U.S.-led late-night surprise assaults on Afghan homes suspected of harboring Taliban militants. "Burning Qurans, massacring defenseless women and children, urinating on dead bodies, and midnight raids are outrages for which the U.S. is now paying a heavy cost," says Major Hasanzada. "These soldiers who are reacting against the U.S. are not Taliban, but these terrible incidents seem to have made them instant Taliban."

But the anger among the security forces is about more than the big provocations. The commonplace, daily cultural misunderstandings and mistranslations on both sides can be just as damaging to relations, says the major. For example he recounts an incident that took place when he and his men were on patrol with U.S. troops in a dangerous and contested area. Through an interpreter, one of his soldiers asked one of the Americans if he believed in God. The American shook his head no and said he didn't. Overhearing the conversation, Hasanzada quickly ordered the interpreter not to respond. But it was no use: the Afghan soldier had seen the American's body language and understood. "My soldier got very upset, quit the army within days, and gave his salary to poor local people," says Hasanzada. "At least he didn't react with his Kalashnikov."

Routine American profanity can appall even the toughest Afghan men. The major puts it delicately: "Americans use the word f--k all the time," says the major. Most Afghan troops take the meaning sexually, not as a meaningless expletive, he says. "Sometimes our mutual understanding is lost in translation." He tells of an incident that occurred on another joint patrol: "I remember one U.S. soldier who saw some Afghan women carrying heavy loads of firewood on their heads and who remarked: 'Those f--king Afghan women really work hard.' The next day I heard a number of complaints from my men saying that these U.S. soldiers are lusting after our women and abusing our culture." Women are a particularly raw subject. The major says his soldiers hate it when U.S. troopers urinate on rural trails that may be used by village women or when they stare at local women drawing water from wells.

But even the best intentions go wrong. This past Ramadan an American soldier nearly provoked a fight with one of Hasanzada's men by sympathetically asking the fasting Afghan: "F--king hell, how can you go all day without drinking?" Another American cultural misstep is to give an Afghan ally an affectionate pat on the butt, as American athletes often do when saluting a teammate's good play. "It's a supreme insult and a sign of bad intentions to touch the bottom of an Afghan man," says the major.

In the end, he says, it all boils down to one thing: the Americans have been in Afghanistan too long. After 11 years of war, many Afghans regard them as occupiers rather than as liberators. Too often the U.S. forces—and other foreign troops too, he says—tend to act as if they ruled the land, like an old-fashioned colonial army. "Perhaps what angers our soldiers more than anything is that they see our people being treated like inferiors or like the enemy," he says. "An Afghan soldier can react with the gun in his hand, but the villager has to accept the insult or join the Taliban."

There's no shortage of alternative explanations for the killings. Allen has raised the possibility that the recent spike in attacks may be linked to the month-long Ramadan fasting season, when devout Muslims consume no food or even a sip of water from sunrise to sunset, and to the infernal August heat. Both can shorten tempers and raise frustration, although this has scarcely been the first hot summer of the 11-year war, or its first Ramadan, either.

Last week an Afghan presidential spokesman announced that his government has evidence from captured shooters and from radio and phone intercepts that a "foreign spy agency"—an Afghan euphemism for Pakistan—is at least partially responsible for the killings. U.S. commanders seem politely unconvinced. "I'll tell you that I'm looking forward to Afghanistan providing us with the intelligence that permits them to come to that conclusion so that we can understand how they draw that conclusion, and add that to our analysis," said Allen. For years Kabul has been blaming Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate for almost everything bad that happens in Afghanistan.

The truth is that the ISI, Ramadan, and the summer heat may all be factors, but only in the context of U.S. troops making Afghans angry with their religious and cultural transgressions. Until recently U.S. commanders tried to downplay the shootings, blaming them on personal quarrels and the outbursts of temper that are all but inevitable in such a high-pressure environment. But ignoring them didn't make them go away. Now U.S. troops have been ordered to keep a fully loaded magazine locked into their individual weapons at all times and to be ready to fire at a moment's notice, just as if they were on patrol, whether they're on a training mission, sitting down in the mess hall, or working out at the gym. And no matter where they are, several troops in their midst will be acting as stealthy "guardian angels," watching their Afghan counterparts closely in case one of them tries to make a false move.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be personally concerned about the killings—and is under heavy diplomatic pressure to stop them. Afghan intelligence agents are now secretly embedded inside Afghan units to watch for any soldier or cop who may be inclined to shoot an ally. Other government agents have been instructed to vet Afghan recruits more carefully in the hope of weeding out Taliban operatives who try to join the security forces.

The effort may be futile. As the colonel points out, it will be practically impossible to do an adequate job of vetting the tens of thousands of recruits who are needed if the Afghan military and police are to reach their target strength of 350,000 by next year. "We realistically don't have the time to study the case of each applicant," he says. "We look them over, have short interviews, and make background checks. But who knows what is really in the young man's heart and soul?"

And that's the real problem. Undercover Taliban hitmen seem to be a lesser threat than the potentially explosive resentment of an ordinary Afghan recruit from an ultraconservative village, particularly if he's from the ethnic Pashtun areas. Still, the only response seems to be to keep soldiering on and hoping for the best. "At this particular moment I don't believe that we need to contemplate reducing our contact with the Afghans," General Allen said last week. "The closer the relationship with them—indeed, the more we can foster a relationship of brotherhood—the more secure we are." He's undoubtedly right. But how can you expect any such relationship when the man beside you might suddenly turn and gun you down?