Allyson Haarstad

The Fragile Relationship between NATO Soldiers and Afghan Security Forces

This week, three more NATO soldiers were killed by a member of the Afghan security forces at the Afghan army base in Gardez. Both parties have been working in closer proximity because NATO forces have been scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. With this increased cooperation comes a higher level of tension and therefore a greater need for understanding cultural differences that may exist between Afghans and their western allies.

There has been a shocking rise in the number of insider attacks (also known as “green-on-blue” attacks) over the past three years. Roughly one quarter of these attacks can be traced to militants who gained possession of security and police uniforms. In other cases, the Afghan security force members have opened fire on their NATO allies, often those who have personally mentored them. In 2012, 68 personnel were killed in insider attacks, up from 35 in 2011. This year, 11 such attacks have occurred to date.

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Many Afghans follow the Pashtun code, which emphasizes hospitality towards respectful guests. But when trust is broken, a violent reaction may ensue. Many foreign soldiers may cross the line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct and cause offense by accident or through seemingly innocent actions. This unique code of ethics is believed to be a major factor driving some Afghan security personnel to turn on their NATO allies.

These instances have contributed towards the ongoing discussion regarding Afghanistan’s readiness for the withdrawal of foreign peacekeeping forces. At the Chicago NATO Summit in 2012, a plan was devised to transfer the full responsibility of peacekeeping over to Afghan security forces and end the combat mission. Following 2014, international forces will take on a new advisory role to support the Afghan Special Operations Forces as they work towards maintaining peace independently.

Maintaining trust between these parties is a growing concern in the year leading up to the departure date. Understanding the beliefs and code of ethics of the parties NATO works with should be a top concern for both the protection of NATO soldiers and their ability to work effectively with their partners. However, while educating forces about this issue is a relatively straightforward task, acting on this knowledge is a different story. No doubt in the upcoming months, mission leaders will be tasked with finding ways to minimize the responsibility our forces may have in provoking green-on-blue attacks.