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French tolerance dwindles over Afghan 'insider threat'

NATO officials have tended to downplay "insider threat" - or cases of Afghan soldiers attacking their coalition partners. But that could change with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s harsh response to Friday's killing of four French troops.


It has been happening so often over the past few years that security experts even have a term for it. “Insider threat” is the expression used when Afghan soldiers or police turn on their foreign partners, and it has become an increasingly familiar one in NATO’s lexicon.

A classified NATO report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, there were 26 incidents of Afghan soldiers attacking their international coalition partners within the NATO mission, killing 58 foreign troops. Most of the incidents occurred after October 2009, according to the New York Times.

Confronted with what looked like a growing trend, NATO officials had routinely played down the threat. Journalists were invariably told that during a typical day, NATO and Afghan forces were interacting “tens of thousands of times” with no untoward incident. On balance, NATO officials maintained, the situation was okay.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe

That was until Friday, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced France was suspending all training operations in the country after an Afghan soldier killed four French troops and injured 15 others at a base in northeastern Afghanistan. Sarkozy also threatened to accelerate the withdrawal of 3,600 French troops. French Defense Minister Gérard Longuet arrived in Kabul Saturday for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan and NATO officials.

Responding to Sarkozy’s accelerated withdrawal threat, a Pentagon spokesman maintained that “those are decisions that only the French government and the French people can make".

But behind the placatory tone of official discourse, security experts are aware that Sarkozy’s response to the latest insider attack could be a game-changer.

“If Sarkozy does that, and if there are more such incidents, I think other countries [in the NATO mission in Afghanistan] would find it difficult to stay and continue, and if one country does it, the others will go ahead,” said Antonio Giustozzi, a researcher at King’s College, London, who has extensively studied the Afghan security forces. “France may not be the biggest partner in the mentoring effort, but it’s a significant partner and a committed one.”

Building an army hard and fast

Training and mentoring the Afghan army and police forces has been the pillar of the international mission in Afghanistan ever since US President Barack Obama announced his strategy for extricating US troops there.

The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops has increased the pressure on mentoring and training missions, according to Martine van Bijlert of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

“In general, over the past ten years, there’s always been a somewhat hurried process, a tendency to start things before they're even thought out properly, and then to figure them out on the way,” said van Bijlert. “Now there’s increased pressure because everybody realizes Afghan forces will need to fight on their own, and that has added pressure on the troops and the trainers.”

Over the past few years, the Afghan army has rapidly expanded from roughly 30,000 to around 170,000 troops. The growing numbers have been matched by an increasingly “involved” international mentoring process, according to Giustozzi.

While mentoring could occur at a brigade level of around 4,000 troops, or a battalion level of around 600 troops, Giustozzi says the mentoring in Afghanistan is often at a company level of approximately 150 men.

That, he says, increases the threat of insider attacks. “The lower you go down the ladder, the more likely the risk of such incidents,” said Giustozzi. “Senior officers are more vetted than lower ranking soldiers.”

While there is little doubt the Afghan army has had to train hard and fast, the annals of military history are full of cases of countries rapidly building a professional army. In 1941, for instance, the US army had about 1,400,000 men. In less than four years, the US army grew to around 8,300,000 troops and was ready for the successful 1944 D-Day mission.

“It is possible to train armies quickly,” said Giustozzi. “But it’s clearly not happening in Afghanistan because the human resources are not adequate.”

Not fit to serve

Contrary to popular belief, most insider attacks are not due to Taliban infiltration in Afghan security ranks, nor are they commandeered or planned by the Taliban.

Shortly after Friday’s attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid praised the Afghan man who attacked French troops at the Forward Operating Base in Kapisa province. But he did not claim that the attacker - who is currently in Afghan custody - was an infiltrator.

On Saturday, the Taliban appeared to take credit for the attack although Mujahid was careful with his wording. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has recruited people in important positions. Some of them have already accomplished their missions," said Mujahid in a phone interview with Reuters. But he did not specifically state that the attacker at the Forward Operating Base in Kapisa was a Taliban infiltrator.

Over the past ten years, the Taliban have frequently exaggerated casualty figures and taken credit for incidents they might not have been involved in. A NATO review of attacks by Afghan forces on their allied counterparts from 2005 to 2011 found only 19 percent of the attacks were caused by insurgents encouraging or blackmailing Afghan soldiers and police to attack coalition forces.

Of the 22 such incidents in the six-year period, the NATO review found that 38 percent were the result of "emotional, intellectual or physical stress due to presence in a combat environment."

Giustozzi notes that the quality of personnel among recruits is a huge problem in the Afghan army and police. “A lot of the recruits are not fit to serve; they are not fit for fighting and the very stressful situations of combat missions,” said Giustozzi. “Quite a number of recruits are not psychologically stable because of the very high use of narcotics.”

'The hashish army of Afghanistan'

Over the past few years, journalists embedded with NATO troops in Afghanistan have documented numerous cases of coalition troops struggling to work with poorly disciplined, overwhelmingly illiterate troops with high rates of drug abuse.

Reporters have recorded cases of Afghan troops using marijuana, opium and heroin while on patrols. US troops in Afghanistan frequently complain that the Afghan recruits are “stoned all the time” and there are a number of video clips on YouTube recorded by US troops on “The Hashish Army of Afghanistan”.

Drug use in Afghanistan is on the rise, with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimating that there were around 1 million drug addicts in Afghanistan in 2010. That means about 8 percent of the adult population of 14 million is addicted, a rate that is twice the world average.

A recent study by the US Government Accountability Office found 12 to 41 percent of police recruits in Afghanistan tested positive for some form of narcotic   mostly hashish.

Confronted with such incidents, senior Afghan Defence Ministry officials typically note that drug use incidents are being investigated, but invariably very few disciplinary measures are taken.

“The Afghan army is trying to eradicate heroin use in the army,” said Giustozzi. “Hashish and marijuana are tolerated. If not, they would lose about 20 to 25 percent of the army.”

A growing anti-Western sentiment 

In addition to the human resource problem, there is also a high level of anti-Western sentiment in the Afghan security services.

AFP - French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said Saturday that the French soldiers killed in Afghanistan were shot dead by Taliban "infiltrated for a long time" in the ranks of the Afghan army.

Longuet made the comments during a meeting with General Nazar, commander of the 3rd Afghan army brigade at their main base in eastern Afghanistan.

“There is a general anti-international troop sentiment among Afghans,” said van Bijlert. “You see quite a bit of tension between Afghan forces and their trainers. There is often an anger or frustration at the perceived arrogance of foreign troops.”

A US Air Force investigation into an April 11 incident when an Afghan Air Force colonel, Ahmed Gul, killed eight US officers in Kabul, found Gul’s primary motive was anti-US sentiment. It also found that Gul had acted alone, with no evidence of Taliban involvement. Gul’s rampage was the single bloodiest attack by an Afghan soldier on coalition troops.

On Friday, France suffered its worst insider attack. But it was not the first. Last month, two French Foreign Legion soldiers were shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform during a mission in the northeastern province of Kapisa.

Faced with an electorate overwhelmingly opposed to the French mission in Afghanistan, Sarkozy may not have the stomach to maintain France's Afghanistan training mission as he heads for a presidential election later this year.

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