Suspension of joint operations raises the question: why are we in Afghanistan at all?

NATO forces won’t work with Afghans… so what’s the point? EPA/Jalil Rezayee

On Tuesday 18 September, at the direction of the United States military command in Afghanistan, deputy commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Lieutenant General James Terry, announced the indefinite suspension of joint NATO-Afghan patrols.

The decision was made in response to the recent dramatic increase in “insider attacks” by local Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on their foreign trainers—the so-called “green-on-blue attacks”. In 2012, 36 such attacks have taken place either by members of the Afghan security forces or by insurgents disguised as an Afghan policeman or soldier. NATO has lost 51 soldiers to insider attacks, including three Australians in the past month.

The suspension will have a major impact on NATO and allied forces operations in Afghanistan. But the decision should not have come as a complete shock to military and political leaders of US-allied forces in Afghanistan. Nor, for that matter, should it surprise the government in Kabul, despite earlier claims that reports of any change in the mentoring procedures of Afghan security forces were simply “incorrect”. After all, about a month ago U.S. Special Operations Forces suspended the training of Afghan local police recruits while it double-checked the background of police force personnel, citing an increase in deadly attacks on American troops by Afghan recruits.

The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is complex and confusing, and opinion is divided on this decision. NATO, British, and Australian officials have played down the impact of the measure, stressing that it is temporary and merely tactical.

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stated:

There had been no strategic change here whatsoever. This is a tactical decision that will be reviewed and reversed as soon as the situation has been stabilised.

Expert security commentators such as the International Crisis Group, on the other hand, believe Afghan troops will not be able to conduct routine patrols without NATO assistance. And it is unlikely there will be any review before the US presidential election.

In his public remarks, Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, implied that there would be little change in the relationship between Australian and Afghan troops as the Australians had not been conducting partnered patrols recently anyway.

There is also confusion as to who the perpetrators of these deadly insider attacks are. Naturally, the Taliban claims responsibility. NATO spokesmen deny the shootings are part of any concerted Taliban strategy and argue that they are the result of individual, personal disputes and grudges. Allied military estimates of Taliban involvement of the attacks range from 10-20%, but it is hard to know the truth of the matter. US defence secretary Leon Panetta described the attacks as the “last gasp” of a weakened Taliban.

There was some suggestion that the most recent attacks were motivated by the anti-Muslim video doing the rounds, which has no doubt confirmed in the minds of many Afghans that the burning of copies of the Qur'an by American soldiers some months back (in February 2012) was not an isolated event. Another important, although rarely acknowledged, factor contributing to the disillusion, despair and embitterment of the local population is the ongoing “unintended” killing of countless Afghan civilians in US guided missile strikes.

There can be no doubt that the decision reflects a lack of trust between Western combat forces and the local Afghan military. It will seriously jeopardise NATO’s exit strategy – leaving behind a well trained Afghan force capable of maintaining some sort of law and order.

Critics of the war ask how Australian personnel can ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists if they can no longer mentor Afghan partners. What purpose is being served other than to strengthen our ties with the United States, and how does this assist Afghanis build a new future free from fear?

Critics argue that the increase in insurgency is further evidence that the allies should leave Afghanistan before the stated date of 2014, saying it is time to get out before more troops are killed.

One thing is clear. Unless the Taliban is included in negotiations to form government, further insider attacks — Taliban inspired or otherwise — will continue.