The “green on blue” attacks by members of the Afghan police and army against coalition forces in Afghanistan have understandably dominated news coverage from the war. Much of the comment that accompanies the coverage (for instance this half-baked analysis in Newsweek) foolishly assumes that these murderous attacks are a manifestation of Afghans provoked by the cultural or religious insensitivity of American and NATO troops.
This is a reflexive argument that takes no account of the fact that American, British, and other coalition forces have been in Afghanistan for more than a decade and are mostly more than familiar with local religious and cultural sensibilities. It also betrays journalistic ignorance of Afghan culture and the tradition of treachery that plays such an important role in it.
The history of modern Afghanistan is essentially a tale of betrayals, mutinies, treason plots, assassinations of fathers by sons, shifting warlord coalitions, bodyguards who switch sides, and armies for hire. The old joke that you cannot buy an Afghan, you can only rent him has much truth to it: Afghan troops are very loyal until they are not. The other side of Pashtunwali’s legendary hospitality and protection of guests is the willingness of the Pashtun warrior to switch allegiances, sometimes for money. Even if many of the “green on blue” attacks have in fact been carried out by Taliban infiltrators, no one familiar with the British-Afghan wars of the 19th century should be surprised by backstabbing and treachery by soldiers supposedly on our side.
That said, the use of infiltrators by the Taliban is an extremely effective strategy that undermines what trust there is between Coalition forces and the forces they have been training and equipping. Recruiting procedures in the Afghan security forces are as incompetent and corrupt as so much else in the Afghan state is (you become a soldier by paying a bribe). If we had played a more direct, even-quasi colonial, role in shaping and running nascent Afghan institutions, instead of trusting supposedly credible local leaders to do the right thing, we might be better off today.