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Afghan violence declines despite insider threat

Dec. 10, 2012 - 05:12PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2012 - 05:12PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is updating its handbook for soldiers on how to detect and prevent so-called insider attacks, providing detailed warning signs to watch for and cultural missteps to avoid because they could fuel anger or violence among the Afghan forces.

The update comes as a new Pentagon report says that the ongoing insider attacks, in which Afghan forces or people dressed in Afghan uniforms turn their weapons on coalition troops, "have the potential to significantly disrupt the Coalition mission in Afghanistan."

The report underscores the spotty and incremental progress in the Afghan war, with overall violence declining just slightly in the past year and widespread corruption continuing to hamper the shaky government, according to a new Pentagon report.

A new draft of the 70-page insider attack handbook includes a pullout tip card that details indicators that an Afghan security force member may be a threat, such as reclusive behavior, desire for control, increased focus on violence and abrupt behavioral changes.

It also reminds soldiers to be aware of cultural differences, including the need to avoid doing things in front of Afghans that are considered offensive. Troops, the handbook says, should not blow their noses, put their feet up on desks, wink, spit, point fingers at Afghans or use the "ok" hand signal, which some Afghans interpret as an obscene gesture.

Titled "Insider Threats-Afghanistan, Observations, insights and Lessons Learned," the handbook also details the more than 320 casualties caused by insider attacks between May 2007 and Oct. 1, 2012. A recent review of the data by The Associated Press revealed that the Haqqani insurgent network, based in Pakistan and with ties to al-Qaida, is suspected of being a driving force behind a significant number of the insider attacks.

Military leaders have worked to reduce the insider threat, noting that it is driving a wedge between coalition and Afghan troops, rattling the trust between them and raising questions about how effectively the allied forces can train the Afghans to take over security of their own country in 2014 and beyond.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged Monday that the U.S. continues to be very concerned about the attacks, even though there have been fewer in recent months. The coalition forces are trying to identify high-risk groups and Afghans, and the handbook is aimed at helping them do that.

At least 63 coalition troops — mostly Americans — have been killed, by the AP's count, and more than 85 wounded in at least 46 insider attacks so far this year. That's an average of nearly one attack a week. In 2011, 21 insider attacks killed 35.

In addition to the handbook, the Army has also increased training on insider attacks for units deploying to Afghanistan. Both the book and the training emphasize that troops must be alert to behavioral hints. Troops should note Afghans who are withdrawn, express frustration with the coalition, demonstrate strange habits, or experience personal crises.

And, as soldiers work closely with Afghan units, including as advisers, they are warned that many confrontations occur because of cultural ignorance or "lack of empathy" for Muslims, or for perceived American lack of respect for the Koran, Afghan women or elders. As an example, it notes that soldiers should not eat in front of Afghans during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

The semiannual report released Monday shows that the number of enemy attacks for the first nine months of the year dipped by about 3 percent compared to the same time frame in 2011, but the level of violence was actually higher this year than it was in 2009.

Looking ahead, the senior defense official said that Taliban leaders are calling on insurgents to battle on through the coming winter season to try and take back ground they've lost, but a senior defense official said Monday that the U.S. has seen no increased effort on the part of the fighters as a result.

The report also blamed this year's shortened poppy harvest for a brief uptick in enemy attacks over the spring. The report said that lower-level insurgents often work during the harvest, lowering the attack levels for roughly six weeks. But weather shortened the harvest to 2-3 weeks this year, allowing militants to return to the battlefield more quickly.

The senior defense official, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the report so requested anonymity, said that while violence levels have remained relatively constant, the attacks have been pushed out of heavily populated areas.

Asked about the progress of the Afghan force, the official said that while many are not able to operate completely independently — without coalition support, they can often conduct operations on their own. According to the data, only one Afghan brigade and 20 battalion-sized units are rated as able to operate independently.

The distinction, the official said, is that most of the Afghan forces would need U.S. logistical, air force or intelligence gathering support if they were to come under a major attack. But, many Afghan units can go out, patrol and even battle a group of insurgents on their own.

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