US suspends joint operations with Afghans after insider attacks; Update: ISAF blames ... YouTube video

Michael Yon first picked up on this yesterday, and CBS confirmed last night that the US has suspended joint field operations with Afghan security forces in response to a string of “insider attacks” that have killed a number of American and British troops.  Any joint field operations have to have the approval of a three-star general, which is the same thing as saying that there won’t be any at all.  It took 36 incidents and 51 deaths to produce this rather stunning order, which greatly threatens either the American timeline for withdrawal or the ability to stay in Afghanistan at all:

The strategy for getting U.S. forces out of Afghanistan depends on training Afghan soldiers and police to protect the country themselves, but on Monday the U.S. military suspended most joint field operations with Afghan forces because so many Americans are being killed by the men they are training.

Afghan government troops — our allies — have turned their guns on NATO forces 36 times this year, killing 51, most of them Americans. That is more attacks than the last two years combined.

The order effectively suspends “until further notice” most of the operations which U.S. and Afghan troops conduct side by side. At higher headquarters, Afghans and Americans will still work together, but in the field small unit operations putting Afghan soldiers alongside Americans — the guts of the U.S. strategy to turn the fighting over to Afghans — will be suspended unless an exception is granted by a commanding general.

The money quote comes at the end, related from an unnamed US official: “We have got to do a better job at protecting our troops.”  How do we do that, though?  As I recall, we didn’t have these kinds of problems in Iraq, at least not to the extent we’re seeing in Afghanistan.  We had a much bigger footprint in Iraq, though, and the underlying conflict was less tribal and the nation’s self-image more coherent than in Afghanistan.

Our entire strategy in both the Bush and Obama administrations has been to use the NATO paradigm to keep a smaller footprint while lifting up the Afghan security forces to a status of being able to defend the government themselves.  If the security forces we’re raising up are attacking us because they’re loyal to the Taliban, then we’re going to leave behind a Trojan horse that could swiftly decapitate the elected government in Kabul.  If the security forces are attacking us because they resent Americans but are still loyal to the present government, we’re going to have to leave with these forces unready to defend the government.  If they’re attacking us because the Afghans do a lousy job of vetting recruits, then we’ll have the worst of both of those worlds.

Either way, we’re looking at a very tough decision, because clearly the security forces won’t be ready to take our place in 2014.  If we can’t hold joint field operations with the security forces we’re arming and training, then we will either have to stick around to weed out the bad actors — which could take several years past the 2014 withdrawal date — or we’ll have to leave and let the whole thing collapse behind us.

Update: Is there anything that a cheesy YouTube video can’t excuse?  Via Jeff Emanuel, the ISAF blamed Innocence of Muslims for the suspension:

Recent media coverage regarding a change in ISAF’s model of Security Force Assistance (SFA) to the Afghan National Security Forces is not accurate. ISAF remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF counterparts. The ISAF SFA model is focused at the battalion level and above, with exceptions approved by senior commanders. Partnering occurs at all levels, from Platoon to Corps. This has not changed.

In response to elevated threat levels resulting from the “Innocence of Muslims” video, ISAF has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks. This means that in some local instances, operational tempo has been reduced, or force protection has been increased. These actions balance the tension of the recent video with force protection, while maintaining the momentum of the campaign.

We’ve done this before in other high tension periods, and it has worked well. Under this guidance, and as conditions change, we will continue to adapt the force posture and force protection. The SFA model is integral to the success of the ANSF, and ISAF will return to normal operations as soon as conditions warrant.

The only problem with this explanation is that the green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan have been rising all year long, while the controversy over this film is barely a week old.  Are they saying that the losses previous to last week were acceptable, but now they need to take action?  Al-Jazeera never even mentioned the film last week while noting that the green-on-blue attacks have risen dramatically all year long.  Last month, ScrollPost offered the data on the rapid increase, and linked to a Reuters report (among others) on the escalating security crisis from August 14th:

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it was expanding counterintelligence staff in Afghanistan after a rise in insider attacks by Afghans thought to be friendly to U.S. forces but who have killed 37 coalition troops so far this year.

Last Friday, six U.S. troops were killed in two separate incidents, one which saw an Afghan police commander and several of his men kill three U.S. Marines after inviting them to a Ramadan breakfast to discuss security.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was deeply concerned by the killings “because of the lives lost and because of the potential damage to our partnership efforts.”

The increasing number of incidents have eroded trust between the allies just as NATO combat troops prepare to hand over security control to Afghan forces by 2014.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same news conference that the U.S. military was bolstering counterintelligence expertise at the battalion level and above in Afghanistan.

The ISAF statement stretches credulity a bit, to say the least.