Has the entire NATO military campaign in Afghanistan come crashing to a tragic halt?
It sure looks that way. Now that Taliban insurgents have adopted the practice of infiltrating the Afghan National Army and the national police – which are being trained by NATO troops to replace Western forces – they have unleashed a wave of violence and killing that seems to have rendered normal military operations impossible.
A dramatic escalation in so-called “green-on-blue” killings, in which NATO forces are murdered by the Afghan soldiers they are training, has put the entire strategy of “Afghanizing” the conflict in question.
Over the weekend, four American and two British soldiers were gunned down, apparently by Afghan police, and on Friday an attack by Taliban insurgents wearing U.S. army uniforms infiltrated Camp Bastion in Helmand province and destroyed eight Harrier jets, the largest single-day loss of aircraft in four decades.
That follows an eight-month period during which 51 NATO soldiers were killed in “green-on-blue” attacks – suggesting that their training camps have become deeply infiltrated by Taliban fighters.
There are now thick cement barriers separating Western soldiers from the Afghans who are meant to be their pupils, partners and successors. And, as of this week, they’ve stopped doing anything at all together.
After the weekend’s violence, John Allen, the head of NATO forces, ordered commanders to “review force protection and tactical activities.” Some officials said that this meant all normal joint military operations had been halted, possibly for months.
“We’re to the point now where we can’t trust these people,” a senior US military official told NBC News. “It’s had a major impact on our ability to conduct combat operations with them, and we’re going to have to back off to a certain degree.”
On Tuesday, coalition leaders backed away from that interpretation, claiming that partnerships with Afghan forces were “unchanged,” but that the “operational tempo” had been reduced due to worries about protests over an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.
"In response to elevated threat levels resulting from the 'Innocence of Muslims' video, the [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks," a press release from ISAF headquarters in Kabul said.
However, US media reports made it clear that joint NATO-Afghan patrols had been suspended indefinitely, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling the green-on-blue attacks “a very serious threat to the campaign.”
Indeed, it could jeopardize the entire NATO and U.S. plan to hand Afghanistan over to the Afghans and withdraw Western troops. On paper, the Afghan National Army and police are meant to reach 325,000 troops by the end of this year, and have achieved enough training and experience alongside their Western partners that most NATO countries will be able to withdraw by the end of 2014 (Canada’s troops departed last year).
But it is no longer clear just how this goal can now be met. If the green uniforms are no longer able to work with – or even share the same side of the camp with – their blue-uniformed “allies,” then it stops being clear just what they are meant to be doing together.