Afghanistan – A bloody weekend, but not necessarily a tipping pointPosted: 19/09/2012
By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare
It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.
The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015. In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.
NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.
However, the facts are more complex than portrayed by many commentators. The violent street protests against the video have been contained by the Afghan police, without having to resort to either the Afghan Army or NATO back-up. This again shows the increasing confidence demonstrated by the Afghan police; they successfully handled similar protests that arose in February after the discovery that Korans had been burned by US forces.
The attack on Camp Bastion succeeded in destroying six Harrier jets and killing two US Marines, one a lieutenant colonel. ISAF assessed that the attack was well-coordinated by well-equipped, -trained and -rehearsed insurgents, all but one of whom were killed in the fighting.
Such attacks have previously been rare in Helmand, but have been a significant feature of insurgent operations in nearby Kandahar. The attack will have required weeks, or more likely months, of planning and preparation. So Taliban claims that the attack was planned as a response to the provocative video and the deployment as an Apache helicopter pilot of Prince Harry, the third in line to the UK throne, are probably spurious.
Attacks on ISAF by Afghan troops and police have been occurring since at least 2006, but have greatly increased with some 51 ISAF troops being killed in 36 such attacks this year, a 40% increase in number compared with the whole of last year. Both NATO and the Afghan authorities are devoting considerable effort to tightening security against Taliban infiltration and there are a multitude of initiatives to improve vetting and counterintelligence. These may take time to implement.
Responsibilty for these attacks is invariably claimed by the Taliban, who assist attackers attempting to evade capture. But evidence, including an analysis by the Pentagon earlier this year, suggests that a significant proportion of these attacks are not carried out by insurgent ‘sleeper agents’, but by members of the Afghan forces who have unexpectedly snapped, often as a result of an apparently minor grievance or provocation. It is likely that exhaustion from a decade of war, as well as accumulated Afghan resentment of the NATO presence, civilian casualties and inadvertent humiliations of Afghans are major motivating factors. There is only so much that can be done to counter this. So many of the new security measures being implemented by ISAF and the ANSF may not have decisive effect.
In the longer term, NATO’s tactical approach to the transition strategy is likely to see a gradual reduction in numbers of ISAF personnel working alongside Afghan forces in a combat role, with the prospect of Afghan forces fighting on their own after 2014. This will slowly, but surely, reduce the opportunities for insider attacks.
Provided that NATO is able to quickly re-instate the currently suspended partnering, ISAF’s decision should not be a major setback to transition. In the run-up to a US election, General John Allen is unlikely to take risks with the protection of US troops. Governments of other troop-contributing nations will share his judgement.
But in the short term, relaxing ISAF’s security posture depends on the reduction of tension over this video across the Muslim world. This is outside NATO’s control. The Taliban’s leadership and their propagandists will have taken comfort from ISAF’s announcement and the reaction it has engendered. It will reinforce their views that despite recent heavy attrition inflicted on them by NATO and the Afghan forces on the battlefield they should continue to attack ISAF, and to exploit the increasingly obvious casualty aversion of NATO politicians, media and publics.
Read the IISS’s Adelphi: Afghanistan to 2015 and Beyond