The relationship between men who go into battle together can be intense, a brotherly love as strong as any romantic bond. But when such relationships break down the results can be deadly.
France lost four troops on Friday in what appears to be a fratricidal shooting by an Afghan soldier. During the Vietnam war, enlisted men threw fragmentation grenades at their superiors so frequently that killing within the ranks became known as “fragging.” In the Afghan war, the catchphrase is “green on blue,” attacks in which Afghan forces (green) kill or injure their supposed NATO allies (blue).
The international forces recently took steps to conceal the scale of this problem but it’s impossible to hide major incidents. Paris suspended training operations and threatened to withdraw its forces from the country after Friday’s shooting, the second such green-on-blue incident in a month for the French troops.
French military officials immediately suggested that their men could have been killed by a sleeper agent, a Taliban member who infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan army. Such explanations are the standard NATO response in these circumstances, but a piece in Friday’s New York Times, based on a classified report, raises the more troubling possibility that these killings indicate an erosion of the relationship between Afghan and NATO forces.
“[T]e report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other,” writes the Times’ correspondent Matthew Rosenberg. ( A correction posted Friday on the Times’ website notes that the classified report was described in an earlier article by the Wall Street Journal.)
The word “contempt” has become an important part of recent literature on relationships in the civilian world. Books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling Blink popularized the theories of psychologist John Gottman, who claims that the emotional reaction most poisonous to the health of a marriage, the factor that consistently predicts the likelihood of divorce, is contempt.
I’ve seen expressions of contempt on both sides of the blue-green divide, among Afghan forces and NATO troops. Sometimes the foreign soldiers seemed willing to give their local counterparts the benefit of the doubt, and some of the Afghan troops openly admired their international allies.
More often, however, the two cultures clashed. Afghans considered their foreign counterparts disgustingly unhygienic for allowing their bare bums to touch the toilet seats in the latrines on military bases, which look nothing like traditional squat toilets – and NATO troops complained about the messy results. (One handwritten sign at a forward base contained a more vulgar phrasing of, “Please do not defecate in the shower.”)
Performance on the battlefield became another source of conflict. In 2007, I was riding with British troops in the Sangin valley of Helmand province when the Taliban ambushed our convoy. It was a terrifying moment: a hill beside us exploded in a shower of dirt as rocket-propelled grenades whistled from a nearby line of trees. The British troops reacted precisely the way they were trained to respond, throwing their vehicles into reverse and pulling out of the kill zone, while returning fire.
The Afghans did the opposite, charging straight forward into the oncoming bullets. I could not understand what the Afghans were screaming at their British allies, but their expression was obvious: contempt. After the battle, British officers struggled to explain to their local counterparts that tactical retreat isn’t the same as cowardice.
On many other occasions it’s been the NATO troops accusing the local forces of failing to stand and fight. In 2008, I obtained a classified military assessment of an insurgent ambush on a combined French and Afghan force in the Uzbin valley east of Kabul. The Afghan National Army’s role in the battle was summarized with obvious contempt: “The ANA force spent much of the time lounging on the battlefield,” the report said.
With feelings like that, it’s no wonder the Afghans and international troops are having trouble making the relationship work.