by Louis DeAnda
The essence of betrayal
For the enemy in Afghanistan, nothing succeeds like success. The last year Afghanistan has seen an increase in the frequency of attacks upon U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel by Afghans who were soldiers, recruits undergoing training, acting as embedded advisors, or otherwise occupying low-level security positions at bases or outposts jointly occupied.
If IEDs were eliminated as causal factors since July 2010, the percentage of all ISAF casualties in Afghanistan through hostile action reaches a staggering 33% caused by the intentional actions of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) or Afghan Security Guard (ASG) personnel. Put simply, one out of every three ISAF killed since June 2010 has been murdered by the Afghans he is training or otherwise serving with.[i] This may be the highest incidence of intentional fratricide in recorded military history.
The media have made much of this phenomenon and recent press statements on this issue by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Obama indicate the depth to which it continues to influence strategic policy. Defense Secretary Panetta’s recent trip to Afghanistan included a specific discussion of the issue with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, followed by yet another press statement which was gobbled up by a Western news media anxious to seize upon it as evidence of yet another strategic miscalculation by a superpower in quagmire.
The trend has begun to assume a momentum unto itself and if rational minds don’t liberally apply the salve of critical thought we run the risk of allowing this distraction to achieve a strategic influence far beyond its due. Emotion tends to inject an element of urgency into the consideration of any social issue and nothing provokes and stokes the fires of emotion like betrayal. For the Western media, it’s the proverbial Perfect Storm because the attacks possess every single element that they love to exploit: the sudden violence of a bloody schoolyard massacre, the implacable enigma of suicide terrorism, intrigue and betrayal and, together with the application of some seriously flawed logic, the exposition of failed policy in the United States’ longest running conflict.
Betrayal of trust is an intensely personal phenomenon that most of us can relate to at some level. It is never forgotten and it causes those involved in the betrayal to question very essential assumptions and deeply held beliefs. At the personal level, betrayal means that we have not only extended trust when we should not have but we have unwittingly engaged in the worst of all possible sins: self-deception. Betrayal means we’ve been duped through naïveté and everything we assumed from the beginning was wrong; even worse, we never realized it until it injured us. For the U.S. to be deceived on this scale it must mean that we as a people, as a modern rational culture, don’t have a clue what we’re doing in Afghanistan.
It ain’t so, folks!
Let’s put our critical thinking caps on. Once we put this emerging phenomenon into some rational perspective we’ll find that it’s 1) hardly “emerging;” and 2) not a phenomenon at all but rather the norm in a region and within a culture where conflict is not some abstract or strategic concept but instead is an intensely personal and familial endeavor. It’s the nature of the particular beast that we’re fighting and, if we’re going to fight this beast on its home turf, then we’d better understand it and develop approaches and polices that acknowledge the reality of this conflict.
Recalibrating our perspective
The enemy that we’re fighting in Afghanistan is tribal. Their notion of the nation-state is almost abstract and, outside of the major cities of Kabul and Kandahar, essentially irrelevant to the people of the provinces where the tribe has been the principal social unit since before recorded time. The CIA estimates the literacy rate in Afghanistan at a shockingly low 28.1% of the general population.[ii] The tribe doesn’t recognise international borders when its members have familial ties on both sides that go back for millennia. Nation states may come and go but the tribe remains and nowhere is this more apparent than southwest Asia as a region and Afghanistan in particular. Alexander learned this the hard way after three bloody incursions 329 years BCE. So did Genghis Khan in the 13thcentury, Tamerlane in the 14th, and Babur in the 16thcenturies CE.[iii]
It took the British three bloody and very costly incursions in the 18thand 19thcenturies, which included the annihilation of an entire infantry regiment (the 44thRegiment of Foot at Gandamak) and the slaughter of complete diplomatic missions including civilian women and children, before they learned that warfare in this tribal region just wasn’t what they were used to.[iv]
The Afghan tribal leaders repeatedly broke every agreement and verbal contract that they had reached with the British colonisers. They then murdered them, including one treacherous assassination of the British commander and most of his staff during the British retreat from Kabul after inviting them to a meeting to negotiate.[v]
As reported in 2012 by U.S. Army behavioral scientist Jeffrey Bordin, Ph.D., the current Afghan Minister of Energy in the Karzai government, Ismail Khan, arranged the murder of 50 Soviet advisors and 300 of their family members in the Herat Province in 1979.[vi] Fast forward to August 2012 when three members of a U.S. Army Special Forces command group were assassinated by an Afghan local police commander after being invited to a Ramadan breakfast at his home to discuss security issues.[vii] Does this sound like an “emerging” trend?
It’s not a simple question of tactics, either. The Russians fared no better in their nine-year incursion from 1980-1989, using brutal and indiscriminate tactics that killed 1.3 million people, forced 5.5 million to flee the country, and internally displaced another 2 million people.[viii]
After the Russians left, the country almost immediately descended into inter-tribal feuding and from that chaos emerged the Pakistani Taliban, a tribal coalition united around a puritanical form of Islam, as the dominant stabilizing force. But to attribute the current insider attacks to Islamism would be simplistic and ignore centuries of pre-Islamic tribal tactics lock-step consistent with what we’re seeing today. We must also consider the potential role played by an omnipresent transnational organised crime network fueled by a ferocious opium cultivation trade that is also strongly related through geography to Afghan village and tribes.
Tribal alignments are socio-politically complex arrangements that are driven by principles of defence and survival. Tribe and democracy are incompatible constructs, a reality the modern Western militaries would do well to accept and build policy around. Tribal leadership and honour is everything; people do as their chiefs direct. They fight with total commitment the enemy they are told to fight, stop fighting when they are told to stop, vote for whom they are told to vote, plant wheat or opium as directed, and demonstrate a degree of social cohesion that is simply unknown to Western cultures. War and conflict are incredibly personal things to tribal culture and the tribal affiliations transcend any external relationships. This may logically explain how 500 Taliban and Haqqani insurgents escaped from the Kandahar prison in early 2011 without a single ANSF casualty; clearly the ANSF didn’t want to challenge the insurgents or were told not to by their superiors.
No single reason
There appears to be no new explanation for the current insider attacks upon U.S. and ISAF forces. The attacks have targeted the full spectrum of personnel from local Afghan linguists to the uniformed military personnel of participating ISAF countries and civilian contractors. That the attacks appear to involve uncoordinated efforts by individual Afghans who have been either recruited for, or currently serve within police, military, security, or other government positions, does not indicate some generalised or widespread treason by Afghans as much as it does a deficiency in the selection and assessment process. The disorganised character of many of these attacks strongly indicates a personal element within the motivation that is inconsistent with a cohesive and focused insurgent campaign. Remember, the “vetting” process for recruits into various Afghan security forces in some cases involves mere testimony by an Afghan village chief as to the good character and reliability of the local recruit. Background checks as we would recognise them in the U.S. are simply not possible here.
In this unique environment it may be wise to not generally interpret the absence of derogatory information about a recruit as a determining indicator of good character. We should instead be placing more of an emphasis upon the tribe, village, and family of the recruit for its historical affiliation with interests and entities both friendly and hostile to U.S. interests. What is the scope and degree of influence upon that village or tribe by organised crime, and transnational organised crime in particular? Is the village located in a region heavily involved in the cultivation of opium? If so, there is instant potential for transnational influence upon the recruit’s family by the Taliban, Haqqani Network, or any one of myriad groups with interests hostile to the U.S. or ISAF. Failure to incorporate these second and third order factors into the vetting calculus may easily result in the placement of a highly undesirable recruit in a position to cause damage either latent or patent.
Perception, critical mass, and consequences
We’re fighting a war in a profoundly underdeveloped country against an embedded transnational insurgency that routinely employs terror tactics and is funded by massive-scale drug trafficking. A ferociously corrupt government appears incapable of meaningful resistance or the desire for rapid, significant change. The insurgency leverages fundamentalist Islam and the tribal construct as strategic strengths and uses propaganda to portray the U.S. and ISAF as foreign invaders bent on imposing corrupt Western values upon ordinary Afghans. The Taliban seize upon every insider attack as an opportunity to propagandise and the Western media are not intellectually challenging the insurgency’s claims.
The strategic drawdown may provide some quantitative relief from the frequency of these attacks, but don’t bet on it because Afghan history is very unkind to retreating foreign forces. Perceptions are critical in this region. If these insider attacks continue and are politicised without intellectual challenge and a rational response through policy, then we run the very real risk of an ill-considered accelerated retreat masquerading as a withdrawal. We may suddenly find ourselves in the same strategic position as we did in Iran in 1978, Lebanon in 1984, and Somalia in 1994.
We can politically spin it as “strategic withdrawal” all day long but enemies near and far see it for what it is – retreat. A retreat from what will rapidly become a well-funded narco-state under the control of Islamist fanatics who want much more than the drug cartels of Colombia and Mexico do.
That may have consequences far beyond Afghanistan.
[i] Bordin, J. (2012). A crisis of trust and cultural incompatibility: A Red Team study of mutual perceptions of Afghan National Security Force personnel and U.S. soldiers in understanding and mitigating the phenomena of ANSF-committed fratricide murders. Retrieved from the George Washington University website at www.gwu.edu
[ii] Central Intelligence Agency. (2012, August). World factbook: Afghanistan. Retrieved from www.cia.gov
[iii] Holt, F. (2005). Into the land of bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, p. 9. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[iv] Stewart, J. (2011). On Afghanistan’s plains: The story of Britain’s Afghan wars, pp. xiv-xv. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd.
[v] Preston, D. (2012). The dark defile: Britain’s catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan, pp. 183-185. New York: Walker Publishing.
[vi] Bordin, J. (2012). A crisis of trust and incompatibility: A Red Team study of mutual perceptions of Afghan National Security Force personnel and U.S. soldiers in understanding and mitigating the phenomena of ANSF-committed fratricide murders. Retrieved from the George Washington University library website at www.gwu.edu
[vii] Daily Mail. (2012, August 12). Three U.S. Marines killed by rogue Afghan just hours after traitor police commander gunned down three American special force soldiers. Retrieved from www.dailymail.co.uk
[viii] Grau, L., & Gress, M. (2002). The Soviet-Afghan war: How a superpower fought and lost, p. xiv. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.