An Alabama National Guard unit has been forced to take on a growing threat in Afghanistan: deadly attacks by the enemy within – Afghan foes masquerading as friends.
The ANG’s 1st Battalion 167th, which includes about 600 troops, have been on a nine-month tour of Afghanistan, which has meant more than 5,000 missions and “thousands of miles providing transportation and security to key leaders, military personnel and civilians” around the country, according to a press release.
Just a couple of months ago, in late November, members of this group were faced with what has become known as a “green-on-blue,” or insider attack.
Soldiers with the 1/167th’s Foxtrot Company were were assigned to protect what the battalion calls “a guardian angel” mission in western Afghanistan. According to an account by the battalion information officer, Maj. Michael Tomberlin of McCalla (a Birmingham News reporter in civilian life), an Afghan Army soldier turned his weapon on the officials that Foxtrot soldiers were protecting.
Tomberlin’s account, vague on certain details for security reasons, states the Foxtrotters “injured, captured and medically evacuated the attacker.”
“Needless to say, we are all proud of their great performance and thankful that in a type of incident that rarely ends well, this one did,” Tomberlin wrote.
Typically in such insider attacks, someone in an Afghan police or Army uniform tries to kill his unsuspecting military counterpart from the U.S., Britain, or another allied country which has sent troops to help Afghanistan establish a stable government and competent security forces to defend it. Sometimes foreign contractors have been the targets.
Insider attacks have increased in recent years. In 2012, according to The Long War Journal, they “accounted for 15 percent” of the deaths sustained by the U.S. and its coalition partners in Afghanistan. In 2011, that percentage was 6 percent. In 2010, the figure was 2 percent. Overall, according to Journal figures, Afghanistan saw 73 insider attacks from January 1, 2008 through January 8, 2013, resulting in the deaths of 126 U.S. or coalition troops or “affiliates.” Forty-four of the attacks, and 61 of the deaths, occurred in 2012.
In 2011, there were 16 attacks, including the August 4 incident where Huntsville area resident Waid “Chip” Ramsey, a 41-year-old captain with the Alabama Guard’s Birmingham-based 20th Special Forces Group, was killed.
Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, the Alabama Guard’s adjutant general, had been photographed with Ramsey a few weeks earlier during a visit with Alabama troops.
“He was in a meeting with some city fathers or whatever they call ‘em over there, you know, and they walked out of the meeting and an Afghan policeman who had been on the force for [less than] a month shot him,” Smith said. “He was dead before he hit the ground.”
In response to the growing threat, soldiers in the 1/167th received more training on insider attacks than many of their Afghanistan-bound counterparts had received in years past.
“Soldiers have always been trained to recognize threats and deal with them appropriately,” Alabama National Guard spokesman Capt. Andrew Richardson said in an email in late 2012. “Training in recognizing non-conventional threats has been enhanced in the current war where one’s enemy may look very much like one’s ally and weapons may as soon be a vehicle or piece of roadside garbage as a mortar or rifle.
“With that said,” Richardson added, “one area of particular consideration that the Army found needed specific training is that of insider threats, which includes what some call green-on-blue attacks. Hence, earlier this year, the Headquarters of the Army sent an Army-wide message to all units stating that all soldiers would receive training on insider threats before deploying. … There are clearly defined, achievable goals and ample training materials and resources to ensure that deploying units conduct realistic, beneficial training.”
Any soldier going to a war zone, particularly one such as Afghanistan where the dividing line between foes does not follow conventional boundaries, is supposed to be vigilant. And just plain sixth-sense vigilance may be the chief reason why the Foxtrot soldiers and the folks in their protection did not become casualties. But Richardson’s email, as well as interviews with Guard commanders and trainers and Guard soldiers who have done tours in Afghanistan in years past, indicate that training for insider attacks is getting an emphasis that it has never before received.
Tomberlin knows the differences first hand. He did a tour in Afghanistan in 2007-08 as a member of one of the small embedded training teams (ETT) of Alabama Guard soldiers who worked with Afghan national security forces, or ANSF, over a six-year period that ended in 2010. Tomberlin was based at a post called Camp Vulcan in the central province of Ghazni. In an email, he said the training and expectations were different then.
“We knew our job was to be around ANSF with weapons every day and while we were told there was always the possibility of someone infiltrating or turning on us, it was not a high enough likelihood to make that a part of our training,” Tomberlin said.
“Camp Vulcan was physically within the Afghan National Army base in Ghazni and we relied on them for a certain degree of our own protection at all times. Everyone sort of operated based on their own comfort level as an ETT. I can tell you that when we visited Afghan national police at their provincial or district centers, we took off our protective equipment because it helped us build trust and a rapport with our counterparts. The same was true for our interpreters. We allowed them to carry weapons. Others did not.
“To be honest, I can’t imagine how I would operate as an ETT in today’s environment. (The insider attack threat) is a concern that has to be on the top of everyone’s mind today, but for us back then, it was always a thought we kept in the back of our mind and really preferred not to think about at all.”
Last year, insider attacks were one of the things in the front of Command Sgt. Major Kevin Griffin’s mind. A longtime Guard member, Griffin, who lives in Irondale, is part of an outfit called the Pre-mobilization Training Assistance Element at the Army National Guard Training Center on part of the old Ft. McClellan Army post in Anniston. Griffin and other trainers worked with 1/167th soldiers last year before they mobilized for a final round of pre-deployment training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. In Anniston, Griffin said, insider attack scenarios were part of the 1/167th training regimen.
“There are mandatory briefings and mandatory training on it,” Griffin said.
“When we have a technique and procedure that the enemy uses that is different, we’ll do everything we can to negate it.”
Griffin did a tour in northern Iraq from the summer of 2003 to the spring of 2004 with the Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion. Back then, the insurgency against the U.S. occupation had not yet fully bloomed, and the Alabama soldiers rode around in vehicles that had little or no armor. They would not dare do that in Afghanistan today, because of the threat from improvised explosive devices.
Griffin also was a member of Guard embedded training team that was based in southeastern Afghanistan from 2005-2006. He and his teammates had to wrestle with various problems and dangers, but insider attacks were not high on their attention meters.
“At that time, it was rare,” said Griffin, who worked closely with his Afghan counterparts and became comfortable enough in their presence to remove his protective vest when he and they sat down together to converse and drink tea.
Lt. Col. Curtis Faulk of Homewood, who headed the first Alabama Guard training team in Afghanistan from the summer of 2004 to the fall of 2005, said he and his team had no green-on-blue training and not a lot more that was useful when they were doing their final pre-deployment training at Camp Atterbury, Ind.
“Everything was very generic,” Faulk said in a recent interview. “We probably got eight country briefs on Iraq. And we kept saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to Afghanistan, we’re not going to Iraq.’”
And during most of their time in Afghanistan, Faulk and his fellow Guard soldiers rode around in Toyota Tacomas, 4Runners and Ford Rangers. One of Faulk’s team members, Lt. Col. Chris Murphy, said he never feared for his safety when in the presence of his far more numerous Afghan counterparts. One of the reasons may have been that at that time, the Americans were paying the Afghans and spending money on supplies for them in nearby communities.
“I guess, in reality, looking back at it, I’d have been more concerned about being attacked by shopkeepers,” Murphy said.
Smith, the Alabama Guard commander, said the insider attack threat has grown because of U.S. and its allies’ plans to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
“Whenever you announce you are leaving over there, as we’ve done, then the Taliban start talking to the people who are normally on our side and they say, ‘Hey, the Americans are leaving, we’re still gonna be here, you better start showing…where your allegiance lies,’” Smith said. “That’s what’s going on.”