In late May, a NATO soldier was killed as he emerged from his tent. Two weeks earlier, two NATO soldiers were killed while eating a meal. In late April, eight U.S. troops were shot dead at a meeting at Kabul airport.
The attacks had one thing in common: The killers all wore Afghan military or police uniforms.
Foreign troops serving in Afghanistan say they’re increasingly concerned about the “enemy within.” Yet they emphasize the importance of keeping anxiety in check amid a climate of deepening mutual distrust.
“You can’t go out scared every day,” said Sasha Navarro, an Air Force staff sergeant based at Camp Mike Spann in the northern province of Balkh. “You have to be confident in your training, and keep your head on a swivel.”
Since March 2009, at least 57 foreign troops, including 32 Americans, have been killed in 19 attacks by Afghan service members. More than half occurred this year.
That has created something of a balancing act since President Obama’s announcement that 33,000 U.S. troops are headed home by next summer: Protect yourself even as you engender the trust needed to transfer security to Afghan forces by 2014.
Maj. Gen. James Mallory, deputy commander for NATO training, said threats may include Taliban “sleeper” recruits who infiltrate the Afghan ranks; militants who use acquired uniforms to sneak onto bases; Afghan soldiers “turned” by blackmail, ideology or financial desperation; and stress-related cases in which a perceived insult or misunderstanding turns deadly.
Although the Taliban frequently claims responsibility for the attacks, fueling a myth of invincibility, the vast majority of cases involve stress or cultural differences, Mallory said.
“This is a society that for 30 years has been at war,” he said. “Only now are we coming to terms with the effects of stress on the force.”
Most Afghan and foreign troops get along well, he said, pointing out that the recent rise in killings dovetails with a proportionate rise in troops operating in the field.
Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University and author of a book on Afghanistan’s cultural history, said the U.S.-Afghan cultural gap is enormous.
“It’s like oil and water,” said Barfield, who has been paying visits to the country since the 1970s. “Neither side knows what [angers] the other. American soldiers are fairly foul-mouthed. Afghans are from an honor-based society and feel disrespected.”
A classified U.S. Army study based on 600 troop interviews, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, said “fratricide-murder” cases are provoking a crisis of confidence among Westerners working with Afghan forces. Recruits from the lower echelons of Afghan society are “somewhat prone to turning on and murdering their Western trainers,” the report said.
Many Afghans interviewed for the report saw American troops as arrogant, culturally insensitive bullies who humiliated them by searching and disarming them in public and frequently violated women’s privacy.
And American forces often characterized their Afghan counterparts as drug abusers and thieves who were also incompetent, corrupt and lazy with “repulsive hygiene.”
Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy, spokeswoman for the NATO force in Afghanistan, said the report was systemically flawed and sensational, and relied on an inadequate sample, adding that “there will always be points of friction when cultures are forced to share close quarters and dangerous situations.”
Despite Taliban boasts of responsibility, commanders in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said there’s little direct evidence of sleeper cells or even much infiltration.
Still, they have stepped up countermeasures, including tougher screening for new Afghan recruits using iris scans, fingerprinting, drug-testing and database searches. And they’ve stationed more U.S. counterintelligence experts in Afghanistan to work with Afghan experts adept at recognizing cultural cues.
These include requiring that two elders vouch for every potential recruit, ensuring that they are well-known in the community, and flagging behavioral changes, such as when a moderately religious Afghan soldier becomes more hostile toward foreigners after time off, when he is most likely to face Taliban pressure.
By claiming responsibility for uniformed attacks, militants accomplish several objectives, said Amanullah Mojadidi, 40, a Kabul-based artist trained in sociology who easily procured several police uniforms and recently set up a fake checkpoint for a video art installation on corruption.
The attacks stir up suspicion between Afghan and foreign forces, he said. They make the Afghan people distrust symbols of state authority. And they deter job-seekers from joining the uniformed services, because Afghan police or soldiers are so often victimized by those posing as uniformed security personnel.
“It’s very effective,” he said. “Fear is a very important tool.”
Foreign troops say they are thinking more about using their weapons in unorthodox situations.
“How you draw your weapon when you’re seated at a desk: They may not train on that on the ranges,” Mallory said.
Navarro said she is more vigilant and avoids being the only foreigner among Afghans she does not know."It’s all buddy teamed, now more so than ever,” she said.
She also is careful to avoid aggressive language, exaggerated movements or body language that could be misinterpreted.
“I spend a lot of time observing rather than coming in and acting like I own the place,” Navarro said. “No one likes that.”
But critics say the measures fall short. Afghan databases aren’t exhaustive or well integrated with NATO databases and corruption is endemic. Most Afghan applicants are not only illiterate, many can’t even read numbers.
Another security problem is attacks by those who pretend to be genuine Afghan police and troops by acquiring uniforms, which have been highly accessible.
In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry has raided local bazaars selling police and army uniforms. But Aamoz Majidzaba, 29, a tailor at a bazaar in Kabul’s old city, said the raids increase local distrust of police and the army. Several legitimate uniforms he was working on were taken without warning, he said, at significant personal cost.
“Meanwhile, Chinese-made uniforms imported by big contractors are frequently ‘diverted,’” he said, “but they raid us, picking on the little guy.”
Next door, stripes, military hats, epaulettes, badges and helmets are selling briskly, no questions asked, at $1 and up, and uniforms are still easy to find, if you know where to look.
“The price went up after the recent raids,” said a Kabul driver. “They’re now around $220 compared with $120 before.”
Ultimately, the biggest victims of uniformed attacks are other Afghans.
“Of course I’m scared,” said Sakhi Majjan Ahmadzai, 21, a recent army recruit having his uniform adjusted.
Recently on the main road between Lowgar and Paktia provinces near Ahmadzai’s hometown, several men in army uniforms stopped a bus, warning of a Taliban checkpoint ahead.
Sixteen government workers and worried citizens got off. The “soldiers,” who were actually Taliban, beheaded the 16.