‘Brother against brother’: How a Taliban infiltrator killed three in Helmand
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Three Afghan soldiers did not die on the battlefield, but in their sleep, killed by a man they considered a brother.
The attack by Zain Ali, a Taliban infiltrator, on a remote highway checkpoint April 15 in Helmand province added to a long history of “green-on-green” attacks in the Afghan military.
A sharp rise in insider attacks last year — 81 incidents in 2018, compared to less than 60 in each of the three previous years — was just one factor depleting the steadily shrinking Afghan security forces, now at their lowest reported strength level since 2011. The Taliban called for more insider attacks in an order from its leadership to its foot soldiers in March.
Seven years after deserting his post, Ali reappeared one day in March, said Maj. Hedayat Rasoly, his commander in the 3rd Kandak of the 215th Corps in Helmand, a province where insurgents control slightly more than half of all territory, according to U.S. figures from November.
Believed to be 27 or 28 years old, Ali had left the unit in 2012 after his brother, also a soldier, died fighting in the western province of Farah. When he came back, Rasoly had the intelligence office do a check and ask him where he had been. Once his background checked out, Rasoly sent Ali to the front lines.
‘I am a soldier’ Ali served for 23 days without incident at his post on a highway checkpoint. For a while, he was one of only three soldiers there.
The only suspicion, Rasoly said, came when he sent two more soldiers to the checkpoint. Ali screamed at them and demanded to know why they came.
On April 14, Rasoly traveled to the checkpoint during a regular site visit. He asked the platoon commander if Ali was acting suspicious.
The commander replied he hadn’t noticed anything unusual. He noted that Ali often talked on the phone in Pashayi, a language which no one else at the post could understand.
Rasoly then spoke to Ali himself, he said, telling him, ‘‘You are a soldier, you will accept everything about the life of a soldier.’”
Ali replied: “‘Yes, exactly, I am a soldier, I am here to serve my country.’”
After Rasoly left, Ali put his plan into action.
In the early morning hours of April 15, he and one other soldier guarded the checkpoint — one watched the north side while Ali watched over the east.
At around 4:30 a.m., Ali told the other guard to check if there were Taliban around.
The guard, who is now in custody, told Rasoly he had walked away from his post when he heard three bursts of gunfire.
Ali had shot three of his fellow soldiers in the head as they slept. He fled and took with him a machine gun, a rocket propelled grenade launcher and four rifles, claimed the Taliban, who regularly urge Afghan troops to join them.
The Taliban promises heaven to volunteer for these missions if they die. They can sell any guns they take if they survive.
‘We were brothers!’ Each of these insider attacks among Afghans hurts the camaraderie needed to combat the Taliban, retired Afghan Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhail said.
“In the military we say, ‘the great victory is to capture a fort from its inside,’” Amarkhail said. “This creates a huge mistrust inside the security forces. The soldier does not trust his commander and vice versa, so during a battle it will cause a huge defeat.”
Almost all who carry them out are “brainwashed, trained and sent inside the Afghan security forces,” Amarkhail said.
Insider or “green-on-blue” attacks by Afghans on American or coalition soldiers claimed four lives last year and wounded eight. Green-on-green attacks among Afghan security forces were far deadlier, leaving 133 dead and 50 wounded in 2018.
When insider attacks against coalition forces were at their peak, with more than 50 coalition troops killed by allies in 2012, U.S. defense officials and some independent researchers attributed them largely to “personal grievances” and cultural misunderstandings.
But intelligence almost always pointed to an infiltrator, not a convert, said Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister at the time.
“Our screening and profiling capabilities are not well established,” Ludin, who now works for a consulting firm, said in a recent phone interview, adding that personal recommendations often serve as background checks.
“Far too often, people have used that faulty system to get in,” he said.
In late 2017, the Defense Ministry signed a new force protection and insider threat policy and began enhanced screening techniques that as of November had led to more than 600 Afghan special operations troops being removed, Pentagon reports said.
The Afghan military is also building an information database about its soldiers that it hopes will help thwart or capture inside attackers, Defense Ministry spokesman Qais Mangal said.
Still, some slip through. The most recent prominent example, Ludin said, was the gunman who killed Gen. Abdul Raziq, Kandahar province’s police chief and government strongman, last fall.
That attack also wounded an American general and missed Gen. Scott Miller, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The assassin, Raziq’s personal guard, had gotten the job on the recommendation of his cousin, even though he had trained on video with the Taliban in Pakistan six months earlier and had been calling them on the phone throughout the plot, according to The New York Times.
Ali, the Helmand attacker, also had long discussions on the phone before his attack, and after his strike he escaped to the Taliban, Rasoly said.
The commander thinks Ali will try to reach Kabul, and then sneak back into his home province of Laghman, he said. The Defense Ministry says a team has been sent to Laghman to find Ali.
The deaths were the first in his unit in seven months, Rasoly noted.
“M------f------!” Rasoly said in English. “All of the soldiers are so angry now. All of them say, ‘Why he do this? Why? We were his brothers!’”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.