U.S., Afghan Forces Try To Rebuild Trust

Mar 9, 2012
Originally published on March 9, 2012 6:00 pm

In Afghanistan, the killings are called "green on blue" — that's when an Afghan soldier or police officer turns his gun on a NATO ally.

There was a wave of such violence just last month after U.S. soldiers accidentally burned Korans. Over the next week, six Americans were killed, apparently at the hands of Afghans working with the U.S.

The top U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan think they have some answers to this recurring problem, and it's up to U.S. soldiers like Capt. Joe Fritze to see if they work.

Fritze heads up training patrols with Afghan police, and they work the neighborhoods of south Kabul like cops on the beat.

Fritze does what he can to put Afghan residents at ease, speaking to them in his basic Dari — or at least trying.

"I just introduce myself, ask them about their families," he says. "I ask for tea. I always say 'thank you' — 'tashakkur.'"

But the captain himself is not quite at ease on these walks.

Fritze says that the very people he's training, the Afghan National Police, or ANP, could pose the greatest danger to his soldiers.

"You always have to keep the thought in the back of your mind that something bad could happen — not coming from the populace but coming from the ANP," he says. "And you have to protect yourself."

A Long-Standing Problem

The problem goes back years. More than 70 members of the NATO coalition have been killed by men in Afghan police or army uniforms in the last five years.

NATO downplayed the problem until a shooting in January where four French troops were killed by a rogue gunman. France then insisted that something be done.

So NATO asked the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Allen, to come up with ways to prevent such attacks. The shootings have been carried out by members of the Afghan security forces, as well as Taliban members who infiltrated the forces or disguised themselves with uniforms.

Allen put together a report that included some new ideas as well as measures that were already on the books.

The first step on the Afghan side is to do a better job of screening applicants for the army and the police.

There's already an eight-step vetting process. It requires character references from tribal elders, community guarantees and biometric screening. But the Afghans weren't following the process, according to the U.S. military.

"The measures that are going into place were not fully embraced on the Afghan side, they were not fully implemented. I believe they are now," Allen says.

The next challenge comes once an Afghan gets in the security forces. It involves watching for signs that someone is being radicalized by religious extremists, which can happen when some Afghan soldiers or police go on leave.

Until now, they've faced no questions when they return. Allen wants that to change.

Searching For Radicals

There's a more covert way they're addressing the radicalization problem. Three hundred Afghan counterintelligence operatives are being deployed inside the Afghan army.

"We will have better surveillance and observation for any abnormal activity," says Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

American and NATO troops will also have to watch out for unusual activity. Allen says he's reminding troops to keep their guard up around their Afghan counterparts.

This poses something of a dilemma: Allen needs to train the Afghan military so it can take the lead security role over the next couple years. That means building trust among close teams of Afghans and American and NATO troops.

But to guard against killings carried out by Afghan forces, the imperative now is: Don't trust too much.

That can actually be a challenge for soldiers like Capt. Fritze, the American training commander at Camp Julien, near Kabul.

"I would trust these guys with my life," he says of his Afghan interpreters and their ability to interpret not just words but body language and culture.

Fritze thinks of these men as his personal counterintelligence system.

Gul Agha Shirazi, one of the interpreters, sees his responsibility the same way.

"Whenever we see any sort of suspicious thing we have to report it to the captain immediately ... for our safety and their safety," he says.

The captain says he is lot more wary of the Afghan troops he's training.

"You work to build that trust," he says. "No matter what you do to build that trust ... if one of the soldiers wants to pull a gun on us, he'll pull a gun on us. And it's our responsibility to be ready for that."

In an effort to be prepared, every time the captain goes out on a training patrol with the police, he takes twice as many coalition soldiers as Afghans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When members of the Afghan security forces turn their guns on American soldiers, the killings are called green on blue, killing an ally. A number of those killings came last month after copies of the Quran were burned at the prison we just heard about. Top military officials in Afghanistan have been looking for ways to prevent such attacks. Reporter Teri Schultz talked with the commanding general there about what he plans to do, and she talked with troops who are watching their backs.

CAPTAIN JOE FRITZE: (Foreign language spoken) how are you (foreign language spoken) I'm good.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Captain Joe Fritze is like a cop on the beat. The American Army officer heads up training patrols with Afghan police. They work the neighborhoods of south Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Out on patrol, Captain Fritze does what he can to put residents at ease, even speaking to them in his basic Dari or at least trying.

FRITZE: You know, I introduce myself, ask them about their families and how the area has been doing lately. I always ask for tea (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRITZE: And I always say thank you (foreign language spoken).

SCHULTZ: But the captain himself is not quite at ease on these walks. Fritze says, right now, the very people he's training could pose the greatest danger to his soldiers.

FRITZE: You always have to keep the thought in the back of your mind that, you know, something bad could happen, not coming from the populace but coming from the ANP. But you always have to protect yourself.

SCHULTZ: The problem goes back well before the high-profile incidents of the last few weeks. More than 70 members of the NATO coalition have been killed by men in Afghan police or army uniforms in the last five years. NATO had downplayed the scale of the problem until an incident in January. That's when four French troops were killed by a rogue gunman. France insisted something be done. So NATO asked the top commander in Afghanistan - General John Allen - to come up with ways to prevent attacks by Taliban infiltrators or radicalized insiders.

GENERAL JOHN ALLEN: I've stood on the ramp and sent those young soldiers home from the various countries that have suffered from this insider threat.

SCHULTZ: That's General Allen. I spoke with him at his headquarters in Kabul where he previewed the report he's now submitted to NATO headquarters. Many of the recommendations involve procedures already on the books, they just need to be followed better. The first step on the Afghan side: Do a better job screening who gets into the army or police. There's already an eight-step vetting process. It requires character references from tribal elders, community guarantees, biometric screening. Procedures were not being followed. Here's General Allen.

ALLEN: The measures that are going into place on the Afghan said were not fully embraced. They were not fully implemented. And I think they are now.

SCHULTZ: So that's restricting who gets in. The next challenge: once an Afghan is in, watching for signs of radicalization. When Afghan soldiers or police go on leave, some come back radicalized by religious extremists or even personal crises. Until now, they've faced no questions when they return. General Allen wants that to change. There's a more covert way they're addressing the radicalization problem. Three hundred Afghan counterintelligence operatives are being deployed inside the Afghan army with the backing of the head of Afghanistan's armed forces, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK: We have upgraded our counterintelligence capability. We will have better surveillance and observation for any abnormal activities.

SCHULTZ: American and NATO troops will also have to watch out for abnormal activity. General Allen says he's reminding troops to keep their guard up around their Afghan counterparts. This poses something of a dilemma: General Allen needs to train the Afghan military. That means building trust among close teams of Afghans and American and NATO troops. To prevent these killings though, the imperative now is: Don't trust too much.

FRITZE: I'd always trust these guys with my life.

SCHULTZ: I would trust these guys with my life. That's Captain Fritze again, the American training commander at Camp Julien in Kabul. He's talking about his Afghan translators and their ability to interpret not just words but body language, culture. Fritze thinks of these guys as his personal counterintelligence system. And one of them - Gul Agha Shirazi - says he sees his responsibility the same way.

GUL AGHA SHIRAZI: Whenever we see any kind of suspicious thing, we have to report it to the captain immediately because our safety and their safety.

SCHULTZ: The captain is lot more wary of the Afghan troops he's training. With them, he says...

FRITZE: You work to build that trust, and no matter what you do to build that trust if one of the soldiers wants to pull a gun on us, they're going to pull a gun on us. And it's just our responsibility to be ready for that.

SCHULTZ: One way the captain makes sure they're ready: Every time he goes out on a training patrol with the Afghan National Police, he takes twice as many coalition soldiers as Afghans, and he watches everyone's every step. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.