The recent death of Major General Greene, at the hands of an extremist-sponsored Afghan insider attack, is a tragedy in what has been a long and frustrating effort in Afghanistan. Anytime one of our own falls in that rough land, my heart breaks a little bit more. Whether it’s a Major General or a Private First Class – our American Heroes continue to lay down their lives for our Country and what they believe in.
This latest casualty – perhaps because Major General Greene is the highest ranking officer to be killed in combat since 1970 – has a lot of policy makers, pundits, and media questioning the trust between Coalition and Afghan Forces. Many question the merit of continued work in Afghanistan at all.
This is the wrong direction to go following this attack.
Responses like these are exactly what the Taliban were aiming for when they launched this attack. They want us to question our motives. More importantly, they want to drive a big wedge between American and NATO troops and our Afghan partners who we are training and advising. All of the news commentary I have seen so far is playing right into that.
It might seem a bit counter-intuitive in light of what has happened, but we actually need to move closer to our Afghan Partners, not farther apart. We need to be speaking publicly about our enduring commitment to helping Afghanistan build capacity for as long as it takes – not leaving in 2014.
Afghan security and governance capacity is a target for the Taliban. In order for the Taliban to govern, they must render the current Afghan systems ineffective. This is why they attack the Afghan security forces and our advisors. An enduring Afghan security force capacity represents a direct threat to the Taliban long-term strategy.
Even more efficient than attacking the Afghan security forces, is eroding trust between them and their advisors. The Taliban and their affiliates do this by conducting “insider attacks” against Coalition advisors – like the one conducted on Major General Greene and the other NATO members. Either posing as an Afghan security force members or by co-opting a security force member, extremists are able to launch close in attacks against NATO troops.
While locally significant, how our leaders respond to these attacks can have a strategic effect on our efforts in Afghanistan. Let me explain.
In order to keep violent extremists – like the ones who attacked us on 9-11-2001- from re-establishing a foothold in Afghanistan, we need to help Afghanistan build a stability capacity to stand on their own. This capacity should be one that is inhospitable to violent extremists. That means we have to train their army and police, which are in very bad shape. To do this, it requires Green Berets and other advisors to work patiently with our partners over time to help them help themselves.
It’s not easy. It takes patience, persistence, and presence. But, we’ve done it before, in many rough places all over the world, with good effect. We’ve helped Colombia, El Salvador, the Philippines and other countries develop a stability capacity to push out violent extremists.
One of the core elements of advising is relationships. Advisors must establish trust with their partner that allows them to work together over time and build a resilient capability. Without trust, this is next to impossible. The Taliban know this and they target trust as a focal point for their violent actions. We respond just how they want us to by talking in the media about leaving soon and measures we’re taking to protect ourselves from the very people we’re trying to train and advise.
Instead, our policy makers and leaders should do several things going forward:
-Avoid knee-jerk reactions to protect our advisors. I guarantee you the NATO commanders are re-adjusting their force protection rules now. Give them room to do that without imposing overly restrictive policies on tactical advising. Insider threats are an inherent risk to advisor operations and must be addressed locally, not through sweeping policy change or overly – restrictive rules.
-Instead of talking withdrawal time table and trust issues, our Senior Leaders should be talking about our enduring commitment to Afghanistan no matter how long it takes. We should call out the Taliban on their failed attempt to erode trust between the Afghans and us. Instead, we will work closer with our partners to help them stand on their own and prevent future attacks. Our narrative should be “No matter what happens, these attacks only bring us closer to our partners.”
-Stay the course and keep building capacity. We need to settle in and realize this will take time. Colombia, for example, is in much better shape today with its counter-insurgency, but it took several decades of advisory assistance to get there. Our leaders need to continue to push advisors out to the places they are needed and empower them to work even closer with their Afghan partners.
In closing, it’s tough to think about getting closer to the Afghans when we take these kinds of losses. Many say no American life is worth this cost. But, Major General Greene and all of those who fell before him in Afghanistan, fully understood the need to build Afghan capacity – not for the sake of Afghanistan, but for our own security at home, and so that our next generation won’t have to fight in that distant land.