September 5, 2012

THE LATEST THREAT to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is particularly sinister and hard to combat: a rising toll of “green-on-blue” killings, in which gunmen dressed in the uniforms of the Afghan army or police open fire on American or coalition troops. Fifteen were killed that way in August alone, including 10 U.S. soldiers; the year-to-date total of 45 deaths already exceeds by half the number recorded in 2011.

The danger this trend poses is clear. The U.S. and NATO endgame strategy for Afghanistan involves training Afghan security forces so that they can handle the fight against the Taliban on their own. Even after 2014, when that process is supposed to be completed, thousands of U.S. trainers and advisers are expected to remain embedded with the army, police and special forces. If the interpersonal trust vital to that strategy breaks down, so will the military partnership — and perhaps the Afghan army itself.

Though the Taliban benefits most from this bloodshed, and often claims credit for it, U.S. commanders say that at most a quarter of green-on-blue killings can be blamed directly or indirectly on the enemy. The Afghan government, for its part, has offered no evidence to support its claim that “foreign intelligence services” — by which it means Pakistan and Iran — are behind the slayings.

The more difficult truth is that the shootings are a byproduct of a complex of factors, including the sometimes slipshod race to expand Afghan security forces from 100,000 in 2007 to 350,000 this year; cultural and personal tensions between Afghans and Westerners, exacerbated by the stress of war; and the creeping Afghan disenchantment with foreign armies that have remained in the country more than a decade but failed to bring peace. These are not problems that can be entirely fixed, except by a total withdrawal of Western forces — something that would do far more harm than good to Afghanistan as well as its allies.

There nevertheless are ways to significantly increase the security of U.S. and other Western troops. One has already been adopted: a re-vetting of Afghan forces to screen out personnel who may have grown hostile or come under pressure from the Taliban. Training of a particularly vulnerable force, the Afghan Local Police, has been suspended until the rescreening is completed; the 16,000-member force is a quasi-militia used to defend remote villages and is guided by U.S. Special Forces.

U.S. and allied forces also must begin following their own security procedures. As The Post’s Greg Jaffe and Kevin Sieff reported Sunday, numerous guidelines were ignored by both Afghan and U.S. officers and troops because they slowed the training mission or complicated other operations. Their story reported that thousands of Afghan police lack proper identification and that a 15-year-old civilian who shot three Marines last month was neither a soldier nor policeman yet had lived for weeks on a U.S. base. While it may not be possible to eliminate green-on-blue killings, such dangerous laxity on basic security procedures security can and must be ended.