In the fog of war it can be difficult to discern what is happening as events unfold. It is getting even harder these days in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have sought to infiltrate Afghan security forces and have instigated an increasing number of green-on-blue, or insider, attacks on Coalition forces. [See LWJ Special Report, Green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan: the data.]
On Sept. 29 in the troubled Sayyidabad district of Wardak province, an ISAF soldier and a civilian contractor were killed in what the ISAF press release called “a suspected insider attack.” The very brief release noted that there were also Afghan army casualties, and that a joint investigation of the incident was underway.
Reports in the Afghan press hinted at a more complex story. Pajhwok News said that five people had been killed and four more were wounded. The account was unclear as to whether the other three people killed were Afghan soldiers, or if the soldier or soldiers who opened fire on the Coalition soldiers was killed or captured. Khaama Press reported “heavy clashes” between Afghan and Coalition forces in Sayyidabad district on Sept. 29.
The following day, conflicting accounts of the incident were being offered by various officials. According to The New York Times, Afghan officials said variously that the clash was a result of a misunderstanding, a verbal argument, an attack by a single Afghan soldier, or a mistaken US response to an insurgent mortar shell. Deputy ISAF commander Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw said that “[w]hat was initially reported to have been a suspected insider attack is now understood to possibly have involved insurgent fire.”
Yesterday The Washington Post provided an account that is much more detailed — and, The Long War Journal has been told, more accurate — of the events in Sayyidabad on Sept. 29. The events show that, despite increasing vigilance and stricter measures by both Coalition and Afghan military leadership, including the temporary suspension of joint patrols, the physical threat and psychological damage of the insider attacks remain a potent challenge for the Coalition effort in Afghanistan.
Just two days after the relaxation of a temporary ban on joint Afghan-Coalition patrols, a patrol of about 20 US soldiers met up with a contingent of Afghan soldiers who were manning a checkpoint in the village of Sisay in the Tangi Valley. Sayyidabad district and the Tangi Valley have been heavily infiltrated by the Taliban since US forces withdrew from Combat Outpost Tangi in the spring of 2011 and turned it over to Afghan forces, who promptly abandoned it. In August 2011, the Taliban shot down a US Army Chinook helicopter in Sayyidabad, killing 38 US and Afghan troops, including 17 US Navy SEALS from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
The US soldiers had come on Saturday afternoon to conduct a routine collection of biometric data from civilians. Pleasantries were exchanged, and the Afghans offered tea to the Americans. While the biometric data was being collected by the US soldiers, suddenly, “without warning or provocation,” an Afghan soldier “raised his weapon and opened fire — mortally wounding the senior American on the patrol,” according to a US military official.
After the senior US soldier was shot, a firefight broke out between the US and the Afghan troops. The Washington Post reports: “Another Afghan soldier at the checkpoint opened fire on the Americans, killing a US civilian contractor and wounding two other American soldiers. Soon, Afghan soldiers and possibly insurgents began firing at the Americans from several directions.”
An official who had seen the report noted that the Sayyidabad attack represented an unusual type of insider attack in that it involved “multiple attackers from multiple positions.” He continued: “Typically we are talking about a single gunman who acted in a somewhat rogue fashion, but in this case we are talking about an entire Afghan army unit and a large loss of life on both sides.”
This account of the incident in Sayyidabad raises the specter that Afghan army units may be more heavily infiltrated by Taliban operatives and sympathizers than Coalition officials have been willing to admit, and that such infiltration may involve active collusion with insurgent forces on the ground.