News story

Close co-operation with the Afghan security forces 'fundamental' to success

In an article published in the Daily Telegraph, the Commanding Officer of 3rd Battalion The Rifles and the Brigade Advisory Group in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Maconochie, argues that recent 'green on blue' attacks should not alter ISAF's course.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Maconochie

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Maconochie [Picture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

The phrases ‘green on blue’ and ‘insider threat’ would, a year ago, have rendered a puzzled look on the faces of most members of the public. When discussing the military campaign in Afghanistan today, it is the issue of the moment for many and expressions with which the man in the street is all too familiar.

Both of these terms are used to describe a deliberate attack by a member of the Afghan forces against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel, which includes British troops and our international allies whom they work alongside.

In the last five years, 18 British soldiers have been killed and a similar number wounded as a result of eight attacks on British forces by members of the Afghan forces. As the British Army advisor to Brigadier Sherin Shah, Commander of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in central Helmand, I am acutely aware of what this insider threat means for my men.

Every loss of life in such circumstances is tragic. One can barely begin to imagine the impact on the families of the soldiers involved.

However it is important to put the number of incidents in perspective. In the last two years more than 40,000 British soldiers have served in Afghanistan and many British soldiers work alongside Afghan soldiers and policemen every day. The context is important, especially when one considers that there are now more than 337,000 Afghan forces personnel working alongside coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.

As best we can tell, the catalyst for the majority of insider attacks is a mix of personal grievances, cultural disparities and psychological distress. The largely unreported number of attacks by Afghan soldiers on their own forces bears this out.

A British Army medic trains Afghan soldiers to apply field dressings

A British Army medic trains Afghan soldiers to apply field dressings (library image) [Picture: Sergeant Rupert Frere, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Insurgent involvement in some attacks is not a new development and should be seen as a desperate act by an enemy which is under growing pressure from increasingly confident and capable Afghan security forces. There is simply no evidence of any widespread insurgent infiltration of the Afghan forces.

For us, developing the closest possible relationship with the Afghan soldiers with whom we share the security burden is at the core of mitigating these unavoidable risks. This has been my view since before our deployment to Helmand and it has not changed through experience.

Establishing empathy and rapport and talking about culture, religion and family is at the heart of developing the relationship. It takes time and patience. Trust is something that is difficult to quantify but you know when you have a good relationship as the topics of discussion can move on to more sensitive and difficult areas.

We rehearse dealing with the insider threat during our pre-deployment training and we employ a full range of protective measures, but the Afghans are an equal partner. I have spent every day of the last six months with the Afghan National Army’s 3rd Brigade; my routine place of work is in the ANA barracks based in Shorabak but I spend a good proportion of my time visiting checkpoints and patrol bases across central Helmand.

Most operations in Helmand are now planned by the Afghans and they are increasingly taking responsibility for specialist tasks like counter-IED and route clearance. Much of the improvement in their performance is due to the close relationships that have been formed through advising by ISAF forces.

Force protection is a tactical issue that is kept under constant review by military commanders in theatre and, as such, we constantly review the mitigation measures in place. On occasion, while recognising the good progress that has been made, senior ISAF commanders will judge that additional measures should be implemented.

I know, too, that the Afghans understand the seriousness of the issue and are taking proactive measures to prevent further occurrences. At the higher level, the ANA has a basic vetting process and their soldiers are biometrically enrolled in training to help them identify potential threats. At my level, Brigadier Sherin Shah is unequivocal that he and his warriors must protect my advisors at all costs.

The insider threat cannot be removed completely; advising, like any military operation, is not without its risks. However, my soldiers and I wear a uniform for a reason; we knowingly put ourselves in harm’s way in order to achieve a crucial mission.

Taking risks is part-and-parcel of being in the Army but by working closely with the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) we benefit from their superior comprehension of the local area, population and culture; there is no doubt that their innate and intimate links with the population we work amongst save British lives.

And the ANSF increasingly take on the wider burden of risk such as ground clearance and complex operations against the enemy, thus further reducing the hazards to UK personnel. In short, unquantifiable as this is, our work with Afghan forces enhances our security and dwarfs the actions of the few rogue elements.

The loss of any soldier’s life, whether through enemy action or as the result of an insider attack, is a tragedy. But our current work is critical in building ANA capability and crucial to the effort of handing responsibility to Afghanistan’s own security forces. Close co-operation with the Afghan security forces is fundamental to our success, ensuring that the work over the last ten years stands the best chance of enduring.

Our campaign plan is on track but we still have much work to do as advisors. At this most crucial stage, we must not let anything knock us off our course.

Published 19 September 2012