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Excerpt: "The Americans and other coalition members are busy watching their backs, just in case some disgruntled Afghan recruit decides to avenge some insult, whether imagined or real. The threat is anything but imaginary."

The number of coalition troops killed by Afghan soldiers has surpassed those of the last two years. (photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
The number of coalition troops killed by Afghan soldiers has surpassed those of the last two years. (photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Afghan Army, Turning Their Guns on the Americans

By Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau, The Daily Beast

26 August 12


he toll keeps rising. By the time this issue of Newsweek went to press, members and civilian employees of Afghanistan's security forces had killed no fewer than 40 coalition troops this year-at least 10 of the dead, all of them Americans, in the first three weeks of August alone. The count has already passed last year's total of 35 dead, and it's reached fully double the figure for all of 2010. But as worried as U.S. commanders are by the growing number of insider attacks-"green-on-blue killings," they're sometimes called-Major Hasanzada (as he asks us to call him) says the trend doesn't surprise him. "I understand why our men are shooting U.S. and NATO soldiers," the Afghan National Army officer tells Newsweek. "I too have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave towards my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture. Too many of them are racist, arrogant, and simply don't respect us."

Those festering resentments are becoming a serious threat to America's withdrawal plans. A problem that emerged as a few isolated violent incidents in 2005 is now undermining the trust that's essential if allied forces hope to prepare the Afghans to shoulder their country's security responsibilities by the 2014 withdrawal deadline. In the past year or so, coalition troops have been working more closely than ever with Afghan troops. In fact, some U.S. commanders partly blame the rising frequency of insider attacks on this closer partnership between coalition and Afghan forces on the ground.

But these days the partnership is strained. The Americans and other coalition members are busy watching their backs, just in case some disgruntled Afghan recruit decides to avenge some insult, whether imagined or real. The threat is anything but imaginary. Several of the men under Major Hasanzada's command have told him that they too have thought about shooting their foreign trainers and counterparts, he says: "One soldier told me, 'In my heart I want to empty my bullets into their chests.' He has not done anything yet, but we are watching him carefully."

The trouble is that the estrangement is feeding on itself. A 48-year-old Afghan Army colonel confirms that the once cordial relations between Afghan and U.S. troops, both on the frontlines and in the barracks, have deteriorated badly in the past year. A veteran soldier who served under the communist-run government in the 1980s and early 1990s, he says the Americans have worsened the divide recently by shunning the Afghans, largely for fear of insider attacks. "We had a very good understanding with each other for years, but in the past year the Americans seem reluctant to deal with us," he tells Newsweek. (Since he is not authorized to speak to the press, he asks that we not disclose his location or his unit's designation.) "Our social relations and professional cooperation are getting worse," he says.

The colonel looks back fondly on the fraternization and camaraderie he used to enjoy with the Americans. "After duties were done, we used to go to their side of the base, and they used to come to our barracks for talks and meals," he recalls. "Now we rarely meet except for professional duties." Major Hasanzada says he also has been aware of the Americans' retreat: "I think these [insider] attacks have reduced, if not ended, our social relations. I think the Americans do not see any solution except to keep their distance."

The colonel says he understands the Americans' standoffishness: "One of our soldiers shot a number of U.S. soldiers in Paktika in broad daylight and escaped," he says, refusing to be more specific about the circumstances. "After investigating, we found that the soldier had Taliban connections and had joined the army to kill Americans." Although coalition commanders have said that only one green-on-blue attack in 10 is committed by Taliban infiltrators, the colonel says he thinks the number may be much higher. "The number of recruits who have a Taliban consciousness and are joining the army with the aim of looking for American blood should not be underestimated," he says. "The Taliban are hunting two birds with one arrow: they are killing coalition soldiers while at the same time hurting working relations between our allied forces."

That's exactly what the insurgents are hoping for. "These [insider] attacks are perhaps our most effective tool to create a golden gap between the Americans and the Afghans," a senior Taliban commander in northern Kunduz province tells Newsweek. "We are aware that the Afghan security forces are getting stronger, so this is best way for us to weaken and divide them from the Americans." He claims that the insurgents have a carefully planned strategy to infiltrate the Afghan ranks, not only to stage insider hits on allied soldiers but also to undermine morale. "We are working like termites, eating into this already rotten wooden structure," he says.

The colonel may well be right that the 10 percent estimate is low. In a video press conference last week, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, said as many as a quarter of the insider killings could be the work of Taliban infiltrators or troops who are acting under Taliban coercion. It's impossible to give more than a rough guess, he explained: most green-on-blue shooters don't live to explain themselves. Nevertheless, he said, the majority of the attacks so far have apparently been motivated by rage rather than ideology.

The rage keeps growing-and not only among Afghans in uniform. Last year an Afghan Air Force pilot, a 20-year veteran named Ahmad Gul, gunned down eight U.S. Air Force flight instructors and an American civilian contractor after an argument at Kabul International Airport. The pilot's brother, Dr. Mohammad Hassan Sahibi, was quoted at the time as denying that Gul had any ties to the insurgency. He blaming financial problems for the shooting. Reached by phone last week, the doctor may have spoken more candidly when asked what had caused his brother's outburst. "You are journalist-you should know what's going on in this country," he told Newsweek's reporter. "My brother did it because of what's going on in Afghanistan!" With that, he cut off his cellphone.

Major Hasanzada doesn't hate America. Far from it, he says: like most Afghans he appreciates the sacrifices that have been made by U.S. troops and the enormous military and financial support the country has poured into Afghanistan since 2001. "America has done a lot for us," Hasanzada says. "But the terrible, individual acts of a few U.S. soldiers have caused enormous collective damage to our relations."

Afghans-especially Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group-tend to be deeply sensitive to any perceived slights to their religion or to their conservative culture. They have little if any tolerance for anyone who transgresses religious and tribal mores and values. Ignorance of their principles is no excuse. Ethnic Pashtuns, in whose homelands the war is largely being fought, will do just about anything to honor and protect a guest under their time-honored Pashtunwali customs. But there are strict boundaries even to that code of honor. "Even for guests there are limitations," says Major Hasanzada. "They must respect our Islamic values and cultural traditions." There are no exceptions. And forgiveness is not an option, no matter what the offender's explanation may be.

Most Americans may have forgotten the religious and cultural offenses by U.S. troops that have shocked ordinary Afghans over the past year, but Afghans can't forget them. There was the discovery of charred copies of the Quran in a garbage dump at Bagram Air Base that sparked several days of anti-American riots in February. There was the infamous and inexplicable rampage by a U.S. sergeant who allegedly slaughtered 16 women, children, and old men as they slept and then attempted to burn their corpses. There was the video of U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters-and the photos of U.S. troops showing off body parts taken from dead insurgents. It made no difference that the bodies were those of enemy fighters: in Afghanistan the dead are not to be desecrated.

The list of grievances doesn't end there. Many Afghan civilians also have a visceral hatred of the U.S.-led late-night surprise assaults on Afghan homes suspected of harboring Taliban militants. "Burning Qurans, massacring defenseless women and children, urinating on dead bodies, and midnight raids are outrages for which the U.S. is now paying a heavy cost," says Major Hasanzada. "These soldiers who are reacting against the U.S. are not Taliban, but these terrible incidents seem to have made them instant Taliban."

But the anger among the security forces is about more than the big provocations. The commonplace, daily cultural misunderstandings and mistranslations on both sides can be just as damaging to relations, says the major. For example he recounts an incident that took place when he and his men were on patrol with U.S. troops in a dangerous and contested area. Through an interpreter, one of his soldiers asked one of the Americans if he believed in God. The American shook his head no and said he didn't. Overhearing the conversation, Hasanzada quickly ordered the interpreter not to respond. But it was no use: the Afghan soldier had seen the American's body language and understood. "My soldier got very upset, quit the army within days, and gave his salary to poor local people," says Hasanzada. "At least he didn't react with his Kalashnikov."

Routine American profanity can appall even the toughest Afghan men. The major puts it delicately: "Americans use the word f--k all the time," says the major. Most Afghan troops take the meaning sexually, not as a meaningless expletive, he says. "Sometimes our mutual understanding is lost in translation." He tells of an incident that occurred on another joint patrol: "I remember one U.S. soldier who saw some Afghan women carrying heavy loads of firewood on their heads and who remarked: 'Those f--king Afghan women really work hard.' The next day I heard a number of complaints from my men saying that these U.S. soldiers are lusting after our women and abusing our culture." Women are a particularly raw subject. The major says his soldiers hate it when U.S. troopers urinate on rural trails that may be used by village women or when they stare at local women drawing water from wells.

But even the best intentions go wrong. This past Ramadan an American soldier nearly provoked a fight with one of Hasanzada's men by sympathetically asking the fasting Afghan: "F--king hell, how can you go all day without drinking?" Another American cultural misstep is to give an Afghan ally an affectionate pat on the butt, as American athletes often do when saluting a teammate's good play. "It's a supreme insult and a sign of bad intentions to touch the bottom of an Afghan man," says the major.

In the end, he says, it all boils down to one thing: the Americans have been in Afghanistan too long. After 11 years of war, many Afghans regard them as occupiers rather than as liberators. Too often the U.S. forces-and other foreign troops too, he says-tend to act as if they ruled the land, like an old-fashioned colonial army. "Perhaps what angers our soldiers more than anything is that they see our people being treated like inferiors or like the enemy," he says. "An Afghan soldier can react with the gun in his hand, but the villager has to accept the insult or join the Taliban."

There's no shortage of alternative explanations for the killings. Allen has raised the possibility that the recent spike in attacks may be linked to the month-long Ramadan fasting season, when devout Muslims consume no food or even a sip of water from sunrise to sunset, and to the infernal August heat. Both can shorten tempers and raise frustration, although this has scarcely been the first hot summer of the 11-year war, or its first Ramadan, either.

Last week an Afghan presidential spokesman announced that his government has evidence from captured shooters and from radio and phone intercepts that a "foreign spy agency"-an Afghan euphemism for Pakistan-is at least partially responsible for the killings. U.S. commanders seem politely unconvinced. "I'll tell you that I'm looking forward to Afghanistan providing us with the intelligence that permits them to come to that conclusion so that we can understand how they draw that conclusion, and add that to our analysis," said Allen. For years Kabul has been blaming Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate for almost everything bad that happens in Afghanistan.

The truth is that the ISI, Ramadan, and the summer heat may all be factors, but only in the context of U.S. troops making Afghans angry with their religious and cultural transgressions. Until recently U.S. commanders tried to downplay the shootings, blaming them on personal quarrels and the outbursts of temper that are all but inevitable in such a high-pressure environment. But ignoring them didn't make them go away. Now U.S. troops have been ordered to keep a fully loaded magazine locked into their individual weapons at all times and to be ready to fire at a moment's notice, just as if they were on patrol, whether they're on a training mission, sitting down in the mess hall, or working out at the gym. And no matter where they are, several troops in their midst will be acting as stealthy "guardian angels," watching their Afghan counterparts closely in case one of them tries to make a false move.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be personally concerned about the killings-and is under heavy diplomatic pressure to stop them. Afghan intelligence agents are now secretly embedded inside Afghan units to watch for any soldier or cop who may be inclined to shoot an ally. Other government agents have been instructed to vet Afghan recruits more carefully in the hope of weeding out Taliban operatives who try to join the security forces.

The effort may be futile. As the colonel points out, it will be practically impossible to do an adequate job of vetting the tens of thousands of recruits who are needed if the Afghan military and police are to reach their target strength of 350,000 by next year. "We realistically don't have the time to study the case of each applicant," he says. "We look them over, have short interviews, and make background checks. But who knows what is really in the young man's heart and soul?"

And that's the real problem. Undercover Taliban hitmen seem to be a lesser threat than the potentially explosive resentment of an ordinary Afghan recruit from an ultraconservative village, particularly if he's from the ethnic Pashtun areas. Still, the only response seems to be to keep soldiering on and hoping for the best. "At this particular moment I don't believe that we need to contemplate reducing our contact with the Afghans," General Allen said last week. "The closer the relationship with them-indeed, the more we can foster a relationship of brotherhood-the more secure we are." He's undoubtedly right. But how can you expect any such relationship when the man beside you might suddenly turn and gun you down? your social media marketing partner


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+14 # indian weaver 2012-08-26 15:48
Unfortunately, the u.s. armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries have become american citizens' worst nightmare, as have the entire armed forces in general. Each soldier now is a negative force for freedom worldwide and for peace and safety for americans at home and abroad. So each member of the armed forces who is killed / maimed is a positive step in the direction of world peace and freedom. That is rather disgusting isn't it? The armed forces are increasing / creating our enemies worldwide rapidly. This appears to be the intent of our government as it allows the war machine (and all government officials and generals - witness Patreus, due to the revolving doors) to keep making a lot of money thru the corrupt pentagon contract offices. "Just keep making up war and we'll all make out like bandits at the banks" - just another u.s. government official's comment.
+3 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-08-27 08:16
When I was a conscript in the French Army 20-some years ago, boot camp was no joke and much of the berating we got was to teach us we were worth less than civilians, for the army is here to serve the civilian power.
This made it hard for us as soldiers but it ensured a certain compliance to the rule of law - the laws that apply to civilians apply all the more to soldiers.
It also has a very beneficial effect on the perception of getting out of the army: you are promoted to civilian.

US soldiers are recruited only on a voluntary basis, leading to advertisement that tout "armies of one" and leading to the perception of superhuman soldiers to whom the local laws do not apply. Then when they come back home, they are demoted to civilian and that leads to the suicide statistics you have seen.
+1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-26 18:42
Reality Check

I want troops home before the US goes bankrupt. However some facts are in order.

Many Americans were killed in past wars. Al Qaeda spending months if not years getting close enough to look like friendly fire means a lot less GI deaths in this war. Note that they if they can't get close they love US uniforms.

A draft is the cheapest way to fight, so al Qaeda plans no big terror attack that would lead to reinstating the draft, instead bin Laden's plans were to derail trains. I suspect the underpants shoe bombs were meant to make the US spend money if they actually killed a draft might be closer.

Embassies are tempting targets but not corporate offices. Al Qaeda demands a private contractor US army, and the US government complies, to be continued,
+1 # Kwelinyingi 2012-08-27 11:36
I claim no expertise on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But time and again, Afghans in uniform have turned against our soldiers in their occupied country. As repulsive as that may seem, the strategy seems perfectly justified in attempting to rid their country of an occupier who for more than a decade has been trying to "win Afghan minds and hearts" in vain. After all, what do we know about American intelligence efforts to infiltrate the Taliban and nuetralize the "enemy"?
+2 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-26 18:42

If the US decides to actually come home al Qaeda won't let us because then there dream of the West in disarray would be over.

I wonder if the E. Coli outbreak that was blamed on Spain at the worst economic moment was an al Qeada terror attack,,8599,2075333,00.html

PS the Northern Alliance was heading toward taking charge in Afghanistan, before the US attack after 9/11

The largest peace demo before the Iraq War was distracted by a terror attack in Turkey at a Synagogue and the British consulate,

Then Majority Leader Bill Frist was calling for Detention Reform after Abu Ghraib but cut off the air by news of Nick Berg's beheading.

When Obama declared his original intention to close Guantanamo. A former detainee was declared the head of al Qaeda of Iraq and Saudi Arabia then disappeared from al Qaeda communicants.

Al Qaeda's war plan is a bankrupt west and their plans are right on schedule.
+1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-26 20:29
The problem isn't that the enemy is just a mirage, the problem is that most of what goes by the name of fighting terror is actually aiding al Qaeda's goals. A number one goal of theirs is a bankrupt west.

More on E. coli as a terror weapon with a huge economic punch,!live/c14qv
+10 # Billy Bob 2012-08-26 21:46
I'm still waiting for them to "greet us as liberators". Could it be that this was a widespread plot off suicidal Afghanis so interested in getting us out that they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the only practical way left to them? Maybe our presence isn't as popular as they media want us to believe.

By the way, refresh my memory...


The official story has changed so much I've lost track of it.
+1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-27 00:28
The private contractors get very little protection, but are rarely attacked. One was attacked by robbers not al Qaeda leading to the US paying blood money. Some tried to claim that bin Laden was a CIA agent but I say the opposite. The CIA and Dick Chaney, Muslim haters and most of the rich are puppets on al Qaeda's strings dancing the bankruptcy games that al Qaeda is pulling them toward. Obama tries to fight back by saying he is going to close Guantanamo but al Qeada just claims that a Guantanamo detainee is the new head of the new al Qaeda of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Obama ends up dangling on al Qaeda's strings by not closing Guantanamo after all. Even though that new so-called leader never said a word.

We are there because al Qaeda and its almost pure evil strings force us to be slaves to their dance of death.
0 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-27 00:47
What I have been claiming involves a lot o cherry picking accurate statements involves a lot of hemming and hawing. Except Rep. Dana Rohrabacher does exactly what an al Qaeda plant would do and say if al Qaeda could get a secret agent into the US Congress.
+8 # RMDC 2012-08-27 04:45
The US military "won" the war. It overthrew the Taliban government in a few days. But no military can "win the peace." Militaries kill and destroy. That's what Afghans hate and they will fight the US military until they leave.

It is time for the US military to leave forever. Afghans can run their own country. Al Queda is a public relations ploy by the USG. The USG uses al Queda in Syria and Libya, so why fight them in Afghanistan.

The US military is its own worst enemy. Drone strikes kill innocent people and Afghans or Pakistanis don't forget that.

There was a poll taken a few years ago that showed that 95% of Afghans never heard of 9-11 and did not know why the US was occupying their country except for the desire to conquer and dominate. America lives in its own fantasy. Afghans know the reality of the war.
+1 # mdhome 2012-08-27 08:35
There was a poll taken a few years ago that showed that 95% of Afghans never heard of 9-11 and did not know why the US was occupying their country
If this is correct, it should be a no-brainer to see why they are unhappy with US, especially since the Taliban has been routed.
+4 # Charles3000 2012-08-27 04:57
They are are not wars. Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and occupied by the American military and puppet governments were set up in each country. Iraq was invaded to enable US oil companies to gain control of oil production. Otherwise oil companies from France, Russia and China would have been in control of oil production with a real threat to US influence to OPEC and the use of the dollar as the currency for world wide oil sales. Oil sales in dollars is important to US banks that enjoy "petro-dollar" deposits from oil producing countries. The "free" elections in Iraq were a joke. The largest political party in Iraq, the secular Baathist party, was not allowed to participate in the election. It was like having an election in the USA where all Republican leaders were jailed or killed and none were allowed on any ballots. If you could call that a free election in the USA then free elections were held in Iraq. Whenever a country is invaded there are always three groups that interact during the occupation. These groups are the occupying military, the patriots of the country who fight to free their country from the occupying forces and collaborators in the country who make out from associating with the occupation forces. It has always been the same. England occupied Ireland and the Irish patriots fought them for generations. The same happened when Hitler occupied his neighboring countries in the 30's. And history teaches us that the patriots usually win.
+4 # cordleycoit 2012-08-27 05:22
We don't get it our generals are stupid killers. They think they are dealing with simple people who will see life like a suburban nebbisher concerned with nothing but status and maybe keeping his meaningless job. The Afghan lives in a world that would kill the average spoiled American in a week. Words that Americans cannot comprehend honor, justice and liberty have meaning for him or her. While the American looks to see whose butt to kiss, the Afghan looks to his faith and his AK.
0 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-08-27 08:21
When one mentions al Qaeda all Americans think of is 9/11. I thought after an attack on a movie in Aura and then a worship service that those in the US would finally realize that much of the world doesn't like it that many fear going to worship or to watch sports events without fear of attack, even a bunch of people paying to yell and boo crowding together in front of an oversized TV screen. Also Hindus and Muslims been killing each other and so have Shiites and Sunnis before the US got in the middle of what we mostly don't understand.

Anyway much of the world has mixed feeling toward the US rather than overwhelming love or hate. A click of evangelical Christians surrounding Michele Bachman and Mormons surrounding Harry Reid and Mitt Romney thinks Islam and general is the enemy. It is possible after being disgusted with Obama promising a lot and delivering a little, America might actually be quickly hated around the world with a new President. However the 6000 Mormons in Indonesia might also be punished.

Back to the original subject. There is something that is hard to picture, hawks in every conflict are all on the same side of the fence, and innocent victims are on the other. This is something that is hard to picture and hard to communicate. Thus whether al Qaeda is a CIA front or Cheney an agent of al Qaeda, the difference is just semantics.
0 # RMDC 2012-08-30 04:58
"When one mentions al Qaeda all Americans think of is 9/11."

I don't. I think of a CIA created terrorist proxy army that has fought CIA wars in Bosnia, Georgia, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Yeman, and other places.

A poll a few years back showed that 95% of Afghans had never heard of 9-11. They had no idea why the US was in their country killing and destroying everything.

You should not mistake the delusions and propagands of American TV watchers for the knowledge that normal people all over the world have. 9-11 was a propaganda event. It worked on a lot of Americans, but in reality that is less than 1% of the world's population, a completely insignificant number of people except that they are armed to the teeth and hell-bent to bomb and kill as many people as they possibly can.

Do the math. 3000 people died on Sept. 11th. What would you say, 5-10 million people have been killed or had their lives destroyed by the US in response to 9-11. Where is the justice in that?

9-11 is over. The great tragedy in the world now is the raging US military that thinks it can go to war and kill everywhere.
+2 # jwb110 2012-08-27 10:16
The Anti-American forces in the Middle East have taken a page from the Reagan notebook. That President decided he would out spend Russia militarily in order to bring them down and aside from the enormous debt that the citizens of the US were left to pay, the plan worked.
Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are usually western educated. They know this stuff, more so than the average American who has the attention span of a gnat, and have turned the tables on us.
If we simply leave the Middle East and leave them to their own devices we will save money and, by the laws of supply and demand, create new kinds of energy to fuel industry and the nation. It will have its hardships but no more than the hardships of families who lose their sons and daughters to a war created by a mad man. No more hardship than pulling the rug out from under the citizens of the US and saddling them with a debt that no Tea Party bugget plan can fix.
Get out of the MIddle East!
0 # RMDC 2012-08-30 04:52
And why would Afghans not turn their guns on Americans. If the US were occupied by a foreign army that condicted night raids and drone strikes, you can be americans would turn their guns on the occupiers.

Americans think war is a one sided affair -- we get to kill and bomb you but you must not do anything to us. In fact you must greet us as liberators and treat us as your superiors. That is just not war. It is a drug induced american hallucination. War means two sides killing each other. Americans kill Afganas and Afghans kill Americans.

The side that cannot take its losses any more losts. All of this talk is only America losing the war. America lost in Iraq and went home. Now it is losing in Afghanistan and is getting ready to go home with its beaten tail between its legs.

But don't worry. The imperialists will attack Iran. We will be told we will win this one. There will be flags waving and people cheering. Iran will restore the military prowess of the US.

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