LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The timeworn adage that “you can’t buy an Afghan, you can only rent one” — referring to the universally-acknowledged difficulty in securing loyalty from that wary population — may need revision.
Last week nine Americans were killed by a man wearing the uniform of an Afghan army pilot. The prior week five other NATO troops, along with five Afghans, were killed by a suicide bomber in an army uniform. Also, an Afghan police chief was assassinated by a bomber in a police uniform and a man dressed as an army colonel walked unhindered in a bomb vest into the Afghan Defense Ministry looking for a high-ranking official to blow up.
This spate of incidents involving uniformed attackers follows NATO's investment last year of $9.3 billion in training, equipment and other support for Afghan security forces.
Within International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) programs, trainees are not just instructed in how to use weapons — they are also fed, housed, taught to read and given life skills beyond fighting. If an investment like that doesn’t secure the “rental” contract, maybe it’s truly not possible.
NATO training forces say they know the risk of infiltrators is real and they have come to internalize a certain amount of that risk. The trick is not letting it erode the trust at the core of the partnership between trainer and trainee.
“Shohna ba shohna,” Dari for “shoulder to shoulder,” is the motto of training forces in Afghanistan, for whom “partnering” is the fundamental concept in helping the Afghans stand on their own. In some parts of the country, like Helmand province, there is now a one-to-one ratio of ISAF-to-Afghan patrols and operations, down from an initial five-to-one ratio.
But official army and police uniforms are sold like flea-market junk in bazaars, and the Taliban is boasting that it has placed infiltrators throughout security regiments. Alliance soldiers can never be exactly sure who’s standing next to them.
British Lt. Col. Fraser Rea, head of the 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifle Regiment as part of the U.K.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah, says his training team basically just has to take a leap of faith.
“We’re very aware of what the threat is,” Rea said, watching over sessions of rifle practice and hand-to-hand combat on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah. "But to make progress you’ve got to trust your students."
One of his students, an earnest and focused young man, shouts “Get back!” in Dari — and “Stop!” in English — as he whacks a British trainer’s padded belly with a baton.
“You need more swivel in your hips,” advises the trainer, “think of yourself as a disco dancer!” It must translate well enough, because the whole group laughs.
“Good lad,” the trainer approves, as the next approach includes markedly more swivel.
Rea continued: “But to make progress you’ve got to trust your students. Without that trust the progress would be slower, but with that trust comes a bit of risk. I think that’s one of these dynamics that we’ve always lived when we’re working with indigenous forces.”
But “live with” takes on intensified meaning at nearby U.S. base Camp Leatherneck, hosting the “Joint Security Academy Southwest” (JSAS).
JSAS is a unique environment where Afghans from both police and army contingents, eat, sleep, train, exercise and pray alongside the marines. Afghan tents are interspersed with American ones; one large tent serves as a mosque, another as a gym. It’s here where alliance soldiers could feel very vulnerable.
But not with someone like ex-Marine Terry Walker in the lead advising — and advertising — the program.
Hearing Walker explain the JSAS system feels like being a football player getting charged up for a big game by the coach. “We have to accept that there’s risk,” he said, “but we didn’t stop training soldiers at Ft. Hood because of one jihadist who perpetrated a heinous crime against our own citizens. We’re here to win; we can only win with an Afghan partner who’s well-trained.”
Walker points out that JSAS is the only camp in the entire country where, if the Afghan soldier is there for instruction in using a weapon, “he carries a weapon from the moment he arrives til the day he leaves. We do not remove the bolt from the weapon, we do not remove the firing pin from the weapon. He has a fully functioning weapon. We haven’t had a single problem.”
Aware that other troops haven’t been as lucky, Walker said, “I can’t tell you it will never happen here. But we have done an operational risk analysis which tells me my risk is lowered by treating the Afghan with the utmost respect and dignity, affording him the weapon system he’s going to use and carry.”
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of NATO’s training mission, is also trying other tactics to lower the operational risk for both alliance and Afghan soldiers.
Together with the Afghan Ministry of Defense, a new system has been implemented that includes a more rigorous vetting process for admission, nationwide revalidation and biometric registration of every service member already enrolled, as well as a new counter-intelligence unit for sniffing out potential sleeper agents or Taliban sympathizers.
Some 450 Afghans will receive counter-intelligence specialization; about half of those have already been trained and deployed. “We are all very concerned” about the spike in incidents with uniformed attackers, Caldwell said during a recent interview in Kabul. “But we’re also pleased to see how rapidly the Afghans are getting involved with this.”
In addition, ISAF contends that the Taliban is overblowing its involvement in the cases so far. Though insurgent leaders have claimed responsibility for most of them, ISAF says there have been no indications that these were truly infiltrators rather than impersonators of military officials.
Back in Lt. Col. Rea’s training session, Afghan policeman-in-training Hameedullah volunteered that Afghans must take the lead here too, in weeding out anyone who would do harm to the progress of the partners.
“We must be very aware,” Hameedullah said, “and not let these people in our gates. We must defeat them. In coordination with the ISAF forces,” he said, “we can do it together.”