By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 18, 2013 – Rogue Afghan soldiers have killed dozens of International Security Assistance Force service members in insider attacks over the past year, but Afghan commanders and religious leaders are working to stop the tragic incidents, the commander of ISAF’s Regional Command Southwest said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus and his deputy commander, Royal Artillery Brig. Stuart Skeates, spoke with reporters here during a Defense Writers Group meeting.
“We spend an extreme amount of time on cultural and religious training,” Gurganus said, so service members don’t find themselves in situations that could lead to insider attacks. But when Afghan leaders embrace the notion of helping to educate their people about ISAF and its mission, he added, “they are the game changer.”
ISAF expended much effort in 2012 to improve tactics, techniques and procedures for dealing with insider incidents, Skeates said, including holding training courses in theater and making suggestions back to the United States and the United Kingdom about how to better prepare soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for such a threat.
“But the most important thing we were able to do was to engage with our Afghan partners on this,” he said. “The way in which this will be overcome and reduced and eliminated is only through their acquiescence and their direct involvement.”
The culture in Afghanistan is one in which people instinctively and intuitively avoid blame, Skeates explained.
“Therefore they found it initially very difficult to accept any responsibility for these sorts of attacks,” he said. “But once we were able to open a meaningful dialogue with them, certainly the military commanders recognized that there was far more to be gained from addressing this problem -- confronting it and reducing it -- than by sweeping it under the carpet and hoping it would go away.”
The ISAF leadership also sought to engage with mullahs, who are teachers or scholars of Islamic learning, and imams, Islamic leaders who often are worship leaders of mosques and in the local Muslim community.
“We had with us an imam from the [United Kingdom] who was able to run a number of programs with what are called religious and cultural advisors within the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to explain what they can do to prevent these sorts of attacks,” Skeates said. The imam also was able to engage with local mullahs based in a training center in Lashkar Gah, and drawing mullahs in from across the rural areas, he added.
In the programs, Skeates explained, the imam “was able to spread the message of moderation and tolerance and of course explain to them what [ISAF] is doing there.”
“Many in Helmand province, because of communication and education issues and the lack of literacy, still don’t really understand what ISAF and the international community are trying to do in Afghanistan,” he added.
Gurganus said Afghan military leaders have worked hard to address the threat of insider attacks -- in particular, Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, commanding general of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps.
“First of all -- and I’ve been with him on several of these -- Malouk personally went around and talked to every one of his battalions,” Gurganus said. “He didn’t just go over and say, ‘Knock this off.’ He’d take an hour to an hour and a half with these guys standing in formation to explain what Islam is and what Islam isn’t in terms of jihad, and what’s justifiable and what’s not.”
Gurganus said the educated and religious Malouk spent a lot of time helping his soldiers understand the commitment of the ISAF coalition to Afghanistan, from the very boots they were wearing to the weapons they were shooting to the medical evacuation helicopters transporting their wounded.
Malouk had a big impact on them, Gurganus said, “and we got a similar response out of the police.”
Gurganus said this is an important year for the Afghan National Security Forces, particularly the army, which will take the security lead for the country in the last full year before the drawdown that will be complete at the end of 2014.
Describing conditions in Helmand Province, Gurganus said this year the enemy has to “give it his best shot.”
“If he doesn’t,” he added, “it’s not a matter of waiting out the coalition forces to leave, because if he doesn’t put forth his best effort, then he’s losing relevancy.” The general said he expects to see a concerted effort by the insurgents this year aimed primarily at the Afghan security forces.
It’s also a very critical year in the development of the Afghan government, he said.
“We saw a lot of good progress at the provincial and district levels,” Gurganus noted. “Not all are in good shape yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of effort being put down … to build institutions that can fund government to provide basic services for the people, provide security for the people and to make sure there’s a workable rule-of-law system.”
For the first time, the Afghans are in control of their own destiny, Skeates said. “They are planning and conducting their own operations,” he added, “and we can anticipate that carrying on throughout the course of this year and their ability to do that improving over the next 18 months.”
ISAF commanders will have a much better picture of “precisely what the Afghan National Security Forces are made of” in the fall, at the end of this fighting season, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot better connection with the new governor who came in last September, and better connections between [the Afghan capital of] Kabul and the province itself,” the general told the defense writers. “So there are some really positive signs, ... [and] it’s moving in the right direction.”