The killing of three British soldiers by an Afghan comrade last week has intensified Nato concern that Taliban fighters may be infiltrating Afghanistan’s army in growing numbers.
An Afghan sergeant shot dead a sleeping British officer and launched a rocket-propelled grenade that killed two other soldiers. British and Afghan military intelligence searching for the gunman suspect he may have been trained in Iran.
“Of course we’re worried about infiltration,” said an American colonel who works closely with the Afghan National Army (ANA). “The signs are that it is on the increase too. This is a big problem for us but there is little we can do.”
Nato’s eventual exit from the conflict relies heavily on the ability of the Afghan army to take responsibility for security. News of Taliban infiltration casts further doubts on the effectiveness of the Afghan force.
“Partnering with the Afghans is key to our success in this mission,” said Major-General Nick Carter, the commander of Nato troops in southern Afghanistan. “This [the murders] is damaging to the relationship we have with the Afghans. They are absolutely gutted by this.”
Carter said his opposite number in the ANA, Maj-Gen Sher Mohammad Zazi, had warned his subordinates to “look closely” at new recruits to see if any of them “behave in a strange way or act in an unusual fashion”.
“I think this is about keeping an eye on things,” said Carter, arguing that such killings were rare and there were unlikely to be “too many more” in the future.
Increased Taliban infiltration strikes at the heart of Nato’s new strategy to promise jobs in the security forces to former Taliban fighters who agree to lay down their arms.
A recent report on the ANA by the International Crisis Group concluded that “with insurgent infiltration into the ANA reportedly on the rise … there has been inadequate consideration of the destabilising consequences”.
Analysts argue that the policy of assimilating former insurgents into the army will give the Taliban more opportunities to insert sleeper cells. Afghan commanders in Kandahar say they are already worried that their soldiers are selling intelligence to the Taliban.
“We are almost 100% sure that some of our men are reporting our troop movements, numbers and tactics to the enemy,” said an Afghan major.
Nato commanders and ANA officers blame a weak vetting programme that fails to conduct detailed background checks on fresh recruits. However, there is contradictory evidence about whether the killing of the three Britons was carried out by a Taliban fighter.
Afghan military intelligence believes the killer may have been trained in Iran, where he lived as a refugee for several years before crossing the border a year ago to join the ANA. Nato investigators are understood to be following a similar line of inquiry.
An Afghan officer at Helmand’s largest ANA base, Camp Shorabak, said the military was investigating a possible connection between the gunman and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The lead suggests the gunman is an ethnic Hazara, a Shi’ite minority traditionally opposed to the Sunni-dominated Taliban.
On Thursday, a man claiming to be the gunman, 21-year-old Talib Hussain, told the BBC that he had not joined the Taliban until after the attack. He claimed to have killed Major James Joshua Bowman, Lieutenant Neal Turkington and Corporal Arjun Purja Pun because he had seen the British kill civilians. He denied that he had had any previous contact with Iran, Pakistan or the Taliban.
Afghan military intelligence said British special forces had yet to track down Hussain, but confirmed that he was in Taliban hands.
The Taliban have previously posed as Afghan soldiers, buying ANA-issue uniforms from bazaars before attacking Afghan military bases and Nato targets. Afghan soldiers are to receive new uniforms to combat the threat and have been told they will be punished if they are caught selling them.
“Any of these soldiers could be Taliban,” said an Afghan colonel, pointing at a platoon of fresh recruits. “It’s not like they have stamps on their heads.”
‘We’d be mugs not to hold talks with the insurgents’
Britain’s most senior commander in southern Afghanistan has said Nato forces would be “mugs” not to talk to the Taliban, writes Miles Amoore. Major-General Nick Carter said efforts were already under way in the south to talk to insurgents and persuade them to lay down their arms.
“If you are going to prosecute a successful counter-insurgency campaign we would be a mug not to put it out there that we want to talk,” he said.
His comments echo the views of General Sir David Richards, Britain’s newly appointed chief of the defence staff, who said recently that politicians and military commanders should start talking to the Taliban soon.
Carter said it was vital that Nato understood what drove the insurgents to fight.
“If you can discover that motivation can be solved by a conversation, not a bullet, then that’s a very sensible strategy to apply,” he said, before quoting Winston Churchill’s line that the more a general relied on manoeuvre, the less he demanded in slaughter.
He said Nato and the Afghan government had already had some success at reintegrating Taliban fighters in the Nad-e-Ali district in Helmand province, the scene of a large-scale offensive earlier this year. Talks in the west of Kandahar province were also proving fruitful, he added. He refused to go into detail.
There is some friction among western allies over how to proceed with Taliban peace talks at a senior level. While supporting efforts to reintegrate low to mid-level commanders, America has long said it is not prepared to talk to senior Taliban leaders before its military had pummelled the insurgency in its strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand.
British diplomats and some Nato commanders believe that talks with the senior leadership could be conducted at the same time as the US military surge.
Although Washington has softened its stance in recent weeks, stating that it will support Hamid Karzai’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, many fear that the president does not wield sufficient political clout and that direct American involvement is essential.
A conference in Kabul this week to be attended by senior western officials is expected to clarify the West’s position on the reconciliation and re-integration of Taliban fighters.
So far there is no public sign that senior Taliban are willing to talk peace. In Kandahar, where thousands of extra Nato troops are gearing up for their push into Taliban-held territory, the insurgents have launched a counter-offensive, codenamed Al-Fatah. The push has resulted in another bloody week for Nato troops, with 22 British and American soldiers killed, compelling some US units to request reinforcements.
Suicide bomb attacks have increased and pilots sent to pick up the wounded are reporting that their helicopters are coming back riddled with bullet holes.
“Instead of convincing them to talk, I think in fact the surge has actually closed doors. The Taliban have taken it as a declaration of war,” said Thomas Ruttig, a veteran Afghanistan analyst. “We can’t do peace and do war at the same time. It is not possible.”