The South Asia Channel

The Deadliest ‘Inside Attack’ is Political

Tuesday's so-called insider attack -- in which an Afghan soldier killed a U.S. two-star general and wounded 16 other coalition and Afghan soldiers -- just outside of Kabul is getting a lot of attention, mostly because Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was the highest-ranking casualty of the Afghan conflict and the first general to die in a combat operation since the Vietnam War. 

Such an attack is of concern at the tactical, force protection level; deeply harmful for the families of the fallen; and strategically, it may dampen the already weak support for operations in Afghanistan back in the United States, but these insider attacks have yet to threaten the success of the counter-insurgency mission. Whether the investigation of Tuesday's attack proves that the perpetrator was a Taliban infiltrator or a disgruntled soldier will and should be irrelevant in the strategic context of U.S. support to the Afghan government -- as long as these incidents remain fairly isolated. After all, there were only three such attacks this year, including Tuesday's incident.

Where the real erosion of trust between partners has occurred is not at the level of Afghan and American soldiers, but between the United States and the Afghan president. Indeed, a much more prevalent and far more enduring form of warfare is the ultimate ‘insider attack:' President Hamid Karzai's sabotage of the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan and his support to wholesale corruption of the Afghan electoral process.

The Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Greene's death exposed an inherent risk of the Afghan war, calling insider attacks "a pernicious threat and always difficult to ascertain." Kirby was also quick to point out that he'd seen "no indication that there's a degradation of trust between coalition members and their Afghan counterparts." Yet nobody is willing to publicly address the notion that perhaps Karzai's political ‘insider attacks' on the increasingly Afghan-led and Coalition-supported counter-insurgency mission has been the biggest factor of trust degradation.

Put another way, Karzai's counterproductive antics have been far more costly on the war effort than the effects of a declining number of what the U.S. military terms "green on blue" incidents. The same goes for the unfortunate "green on green" fratricide attacks within the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). After all, according to the New York Times, the day after the attack on Greene's group in Kabul, two separate attacks by Afghan police officers, allegedly collaborating with the Taliban, killed 11 fellow police officers in southern Afghanistan.

According to an April 2014 Department of Defense report, insider attacks are declining from their peak of 48 attacks in 2012, but "may still have strategic effects on the campaign and could jeopardize the relationship between coalition and ANSF." Certainly, the coalition and its Afghan partners are right to investigate and correct any deficiencies in the vetting process for Afghan soldiers, including both initial screening and continued monitoring of attitudes. Also, to be fair, the coalition experiment of mass-producing the Afghan Army quickly, in large part due to an arbitrary timeline associated with the 18-month coalition surge, has made such a vetting process difficult. 

Yet a bigger challenge remains Karzai's aggressive behavior towards the international community trying to help his government, his insensitive attitude towards the sacrifices of his own ANSF, and his soft stance towards the insurgents trying to destroy it. During the past five years, he has been quite actively trying to sabotage the counter-insurgency mission in the ultimate type of insider attack --at the political level. Although his narrative is rather lenient when it comes to the Taliban, he has fueled anti-coalition sentiments for years. For example, Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reported in the Los Angeles Times that "Karzai went ballistic, storming out of rooms and theatrically threatening to join the Taliban himself" when President Obama addressed the Afghan government's rampant corruption during his March 2010 visit to Kabul.

Thousands of Afghan and coalition soldiers have lost their lives trying to curb the Taliban's advances and give the Afghan state the breathing space needed to grow its indigenous security force and governance capacity. But, to date, the U.S. administration has never seriously challenged Karzai's references to the Taliban as the "upset brothers," his vitriolic outbursts against coalition and ANSF operations, and his vilification of those within his own administration who challenged his endearment towards the Taliban. While it is hard to empirically correlate Karzai's behavior as Commander in Chief to any specific insider attack, many Afghans feel that his disdain for the foreign troop presence since 2009 and his apparent fondness for the Taliban has created friction that insurgents can exploit as leverage to infiltrate the ANSF.

In November 2013, instead of focusing on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would solidify U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2014, Karzai used the Loya Jirga (tribal gathering) that was supposed to address the BSA to attack supposed civilian casualties during foreign troops' night raids. Both NATO's International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Army leadership insisted that the raid that Karzai referenced was Afghan-led and that the people killed were "gun-wielding insurgents, not civilian construction workers." Karzai, however, focused his narrative on creating distrust for the U.S. and NATO militaries. At the same time, Karzai has been tying the hands of his own forces by arbitrarily ordering a ban on heavy weapons against the Taliban in July 2014. With ANSF casualties up 15 percent in the past year, Afghan civil society groups have criticized Karzai's orders, calling them "policies of appeasement."

Afghanistan will get a new president soon. The next Afghan president must seek to strengthen, not sabotage, the relationship between coalition and Afghan forces -- and by extension the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Kabul to solidify progress made during his previous trip that prevented a meltdown of the Afghan election process due to allegations of massive fraud. Kerry will hopefully help the candidates -- Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani -- reach an agreement on the criteria for fraudulent vote invalidation and get the audit of eight million votes back on track and expedited. As soon as either Abdullah or Ghani emerge as the next president, political ‘insider attacks' at the presidential level that sabotage the relationship between donors and Afghanistan will come to a screeching halt -- Inshallah (God willing.)

Ioannis Koskinas is a Senior Fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and a retired military officer who focuses on risk mitigation and economic development projects in South Asia.

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images