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General Greene’s Death and the Afghan Mission

The death of Major General Harold Greene in Kabul is shocking on many levels. He is the most senior military officer killed in a war zone overseas since the Vietnam War and by all accounts a highly intelligent and competent officer who, ironically enough, had never served in combat before arriving in Afghanistan this year to take the No. 2 job at the command charged with training Afghan troops. Kabul is not particularly dangerous, especially not compared to Baghdad. I and many other visitors have been to the military academy where he was slain many times. Yet even in Kabul there can be terrorist attacks.

The death of General Greene and the wounding of a number of other NATO personnel is all the more dismaying because the perpetrator was an Afghan soldier. Such incidents of “green on blue” violence have the potential to turn Americans against the entire Afghan endeavor. Why should we help them, many wonder, if even Afghan soldiers want to kill our troops?

A little perspective is in order. While there have been all too many “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, the number has actually dropped in the past year and it was never all that high to begin with. Very, very few Afghan soldiers have ever been driven to turn their weapons on their allies. As in, an infinitesimally small amount. We’re talking about a few dozen individuals out of a force more than 330,000 strong.

Remember that even the U.S. Armed Forces are hardly immune to these kinds of “insider” attacks. Fort Hood alone has seen two such attacks, one in 2009, another in April. The fact that Major Nidal Malik Hasan fatally shot 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009 is not and should not be taken as evidence that the U.S. Armed Forces are fundamentally disloyal. It was and should be seen as a freak occurrence by one disgruntled officer.

The shooting in Kabul should be seen in the same light. There is no larger problem of disloyalty among Afghan military units. They are not defecting to the enemy or refusing to fight. In fact they are fighting hard and suffering considerable casualties.

The “insider” threat in Afghanistan is real, but it is actually decreasing. The U.S. military is acutely conscious of this issue and has taken steps to mitigate the danger, for example by assigning troopers to act as “guardian angels” for other troopers when meeting with Afghan counterparts. Such steps have paid off. According to the Brookings Institution, there were 21 insider attacks in 2011, 41 in 2012, 9 in 2013, and just one this year prior to the attack on General Greene.

Moreover, while any death is tragic, it is important to keep in mind that U.S. fatalities overall are rapidly decreasing. According to the icasualties website, 39 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year–down from 127 in 2013, 310 in 2012, and 418 in 2011. Those figures will undoubtedly fall even more as U.S. personnel transition to an entirely advisory mission. What may happen is that, as the threat from IEDs and other types of attacks goes down, the percentage of fatalities caused by insider attacks goes up. But that should not mask the overall trend, which is that Afghanistan is getting safer for U.S. personnel.

Thus there is no reason to rethink the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan after this attack, no matter how shocking or tragic. Given General Greene’s lifetime of distinguished service–and the service of his family members as well–it is safe to assume that this is the last thing he would have wanted, for his death to lead to a pullout from Afghanistan that will undo all that he and so many other soldiers fought so hard to achieve.



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