As a new batch of 450 Australian soldiers headed for Afghanistan, Brigadier Gus McLachlan, commander of the Darwin-based 1st Brigade, cited force protection measures and cross-cultural training in dealing with what has become a major problem for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.
Fifty-one ISAF members have been killed in 36 insider attacks this year alone, more than 40 percent of the total 116 fatalities in 69 such incidents since the beginning of 2009.
Eight personnel – four U.S. soldiers, two U.S. Marines and two British soldiers – were killed in separate insider attacks this month, in Helmand province on Sept. 15 and in Zabul province the following day.
On August 29, three Australian soldiers were killed and two more wounded in Uruzgan province. The perpetrator escaped immediately after turning his weapon on the ISAF colleagues and remains at large. The Taliban later posted a picture online of the Afghan National Army (ANA) sergeant it said was responsible.
“I won’t pretend like that insider threat is not something that we think about,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted McLachlan as saying in Darwin on Tuesday. “In fact we’ve included it as a serious issue and it's been at the forefront of our training.”
Along with a focus on cross-cultural learning, he said, “we also need to make sure we have force protection measures in place at every interaction that we have, just in case there is something in the situation that goes beyond the cultural clash.”
“I like that old adage of we want to be their best friend but the worst enemy of anybody who wants to take us on.”
Last week ISAF commander Gen. John Allen placed restrictions on when ISAF and Afghan troops can patrol together, with joint operations by small units requiring prior evaluation and approval by commanders.
ISAF in a statement cited elevated threat levels linked to an anti-Islam film stirring up Muslim anger, and called the changes “prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks.”
ISAF deputy chief of staff for operations, Brig. Gen. Roger Noble of the Australian Army, told a Pentagon video press briefing the following day that Allen’s move was “pretty sensible.”
“We’re not stupid. We can learn from previous experience,” he said. “And we remember well back what happened in February with the mishandling of the Qur’an and the burning of the Qur’an etc., and the response from the local population. And part of that was an increase in insider threat.”
ANA chief of staff executive officer Maj. Gen. Abdullah Khaliq addressed the issue while speaking at a seminar of ANA non-commissioned officers in Kabul, calling it a matter of honor.
“Our international friends are fighting for 10 years, side by side with us to help us defeat terrorism,” Khaliq said. “An honorable Afghan would never let harm come to their friends or guests. Our ISAF partners are our guests and allies.”
Addressing the same event, Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi urged the NCOs to be vigilant and to report up the chain of command anyone who shows signs of dishonoring that friendship.
According to statistics compiled by the New Delhi- based Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), fatalities in insider attacks have not been limited to ISAF ranks. It says at least 53 members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which includes military and police, have been killed in 35 such attacks this year.
ICM research fellow Ajit Kumar Singh in an analysis Monday argued that the spike in insider attacks was linked to President Obama’s June 2011 announcement of the withdrawal of 33,000 “surge” forces by September 2012. (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Friday that those troops have now left.)
“To offset the decline in foreign troops, there was surge in recruitment into ANSF, with 10,000 to 15,000 new recruits being brought into the Afghan forces each month, in order to reach the target strength of 352,000 by October 2012,” Singh wrote.
“This has led to poor screening processes and the entry of a large number of Taliban-backed rogue elements, who hope to capture control of the [ANSF] in the aftermath of the ISAF withdrawal.”