Insider attacks against US troops in Afghanistan have dropped to a historic low. Here’s why

Insider attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan have all but evaporated in recent months.

Despite rising violence across Afghanistan amid a fraught peace process and a potential U.S. military drawdown, there’s a fresh silver lining to the ongoing war in the country: insider attacks against U.S. forces have all but evaporated in recent months.

According to the latest assessment from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published on Monday, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) reported “no insider attacks, nor casualties resulting from insider attacks, among U.S. and Coalition forces” during the closing months of 2020.

This is a stark contrast to the “deadliest year on record” for so-called ‘green-on-blue’ attacks of 2019, which saw 172 killed and 85 wounded in 82 insider attacks carried out by both Afghan soldiers and “Taliban infiltrators,” according to a report from the lead State Department inspector general for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan published in May.

Indeed, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel carried out 33 insider attacks during the fourth quarter of 2019, averaging one incident every four days where members of Afghanistan’s security forces turned their weapons on one another.

In one major incident, a Taliban infiltrator killed 23 Afghan National Army soldiers in their sleep at a military base in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province in Dec. 2019, the New York Times reported.

As Task & Purpose previously reported, the U.S. observed a dramatic increase in green-on-blue attacks against coalition forces starting around 2011, with insider attacks accounting for roughly 15 percent of combat deaths during the following year before levels dropped off starting in 2015.

Insider attacks against US troops in Afghanistan have dropped to a historic low. Here’s why
(State Department Office of the Inspector General)

So why have insider attacks now ceased? For one, the February peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban gave the latter an incentive to cease direct attacks on U.S. and coalition forces through those “Taliban infiltrators” described in the State Department IG report.

“In terms of hardcore and directed Taliban insiders, that is certainly not in their interest right now to be seen as directing attacks directly against Americans,” Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer and fellow at the Center for New American Security who has investigated green-on-blue attacks, told Task & Purpose. “They want violence and instability without directly targeting Americans.”

But with regards to insider attacks carried out by disaffected ANDSF personnel, the reasons behind the sudden decline are more likely a function of the U.S. troop drawdown in the country, which has seen force levels reduced to roughly 2,500 troops during the closing months of the Trump administration.

As a result of the drawdown, there’s “far less exposure” to potential hostiles within the ANDSF ranks among U.S. troops, as Dempsey explained, and fewer troops mean “fewer opportunities for disaffected Afghans to interact with Americans and for Americans to be unaware of that Afghan;’s potential motivations.”

“You only get insider attacks when you have random SFABs floating around in new areas and you have folks exposed to different people,” Dempsey said. “Any of the special operations forces who are there, their shit is locked tight, and they’ve been there so long that all of their partner elements and folks coming in and out of compounds are heavily vetted.”

The U.S. experience in Afghanistan bears this out. According to the State Department IG report, the number of insider attacks against U.S. forces significantly declined in 2015 because the beginning of of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support at the time refocused training, advising, and assistance for the ANDSF “largely at the corps and ministerial levels,” meaning that coalition forces “had less contact with the ANDSF at the tactical level” and therefore less exposure to potential hostiles in the ranks.

Indeed, the State Department’s own data indicates that despite the relative drop-off in casualties from green-on-blue incidents among U.S. forces starting in 2015, casualties among Afghan forces from insider attacks incidents skyrocketed as ANDSF personnel took over responsibility for internal security with the start of Resolute Support.

Insider attacks against US troops in Afghanistan have dropped to a historic low. Here’s why
(State Department Office of the Inspector General)

It’s hard to tell if the apparent lull in insider attacks will persist. The most recent green-on-blue attack occurred on February 8, 2020, just prior to the U.S.-Taliban peace accord, killing two U.S. military personnel and wounding seven others.

But with the U.S. racing to get the hell out of Afghanistan once and for all, it’s likely that insider attacks may remain low for the foreseeable future — until, at least, the Taliban decides that its apparent moratorium on such assaults is no longer a viable option.

Related: Will the US finally get the hell out of Afghanistan once and for all?

Jared Keller

Jared Kelleris the executive editor of Task & Purpose. His writing has appeared in Aeon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Republic, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Contact the author here.