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Attacks on coalition troops by allied Afghanistan security forces, which reached record levels last year, have declined dramatically so far this year, as coalition and Afghan commanders have bolster security and improved screening of troops who might be a threat.
Last year, 47 attacks by Afghan security forces on coalition troops killed 62 people. So far this year, one coalition death has been reported as a result of one "insider attack."
"I don't think that threat ever goes away," said Marine Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus, who commands coalition forces in southwest Afghanistan. Still, Gurganus said, changes made by both coalition and Afghan forces in his region have helped reduce the threat.
The decline in insider attacks comes as overall fatalities U.S. forces has decreased sharply. This year, three U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan, down from 39 during the same period last year. The number of U.S. forces has been declining as Afghan forces take a lead role in security operations.
The insider attacks have dropped largely as a result of "substantial" changes in tactics by Afghan and U.S. forces, Gurganus said in an interview from Afghanistan.
Among the changes he cited:
• Coalition forces improved security tactics to enhance troop protection.
• Afghan commanders increased supervision and oversight of their troops.
• Afghans enhanced screening of recruits and took counterintelligence steps to screen for potential attackers.
The nationwide spike in these attacks last year raised worries that the trend would undermine trust between Afghan and coalition forces, just as the mission of coalition forces was changing from combat to training and assisting Afghan security forces.
"The Taliban realized the strategic significance of these attacks even though I'm not sure how many of them they were actually responsible for," Gurganus said. "The Taliban was very quick to claim credit for them."
The military has said it was hard to determine the precise cause for many of the attacks, though only a small number were direct infiltration by Taliban insurgents.
Many of the attacks appeared to have been the result of cultural misunderstandings or personal grievances. Some Afghan soldiers were also influenced when they went on leave or if their family was threatened by insurgents.
Key to the recent improvement was getting Afghan leaders to recognize the problem and take action. "We really saw the Afghans reach out and grip these problems," Gurganus said.
"I think it took a little coaxing on the part of Gen. Allen," he said, referring to Marine Gen. John Allen, who recently stepped down as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Afghan leaders talked directly to their troops about the issue and pushed small unit leaders, such as platoon leaders, to keep a closer eye on their troops.
American junior officers and noncommissioned officers are expected to know their troops well and exercise close supervision. That was not generally the case in the Afghan military.
The increased awareness of the junior Afghan leaders helped head off potential problems.
The Afghans also provided counter-intelligence assistance, helping to screen soldiers who might pose a threat, said Marc Chretien, Allen's chief political adviser.
"Gen. Allen immediately gripped the problem, but more importantly made it a problem for the Afghans and enlisted their support," Chretien said.
The military also noted that soldiers who came from some regions were more likely to be involved in an attack.
Contributing: Paul Overberg