Death-by-ally: now that, by definition, is a fate from hell. You might at least imagine that such “insider attacks” — in which a member of the Afghan security forces turns his weapon on his American or NATO trainers or advisers and tries to gun them down — would be the rarest of events. After all, if you’re an armed Afghan who decides to try to kill such an ally, you have to be aware that you’re almost assuredly committing suicide. You have a moment to fire and then, in that armed environment, you’re likely to be dead. And yet those attacks, which started in 2007-2008 with four American deaths, peaked in 2012 with dozens of them, and by 2017 had resulted in 157 deaths, most of them American (along with many uncounted Afghan deaths). However, between 2013 and this year, such desperate acts faded, becoming the exceedingly rare events you might expect them to be. But no longer. In one case after another recently, armed Afghan allies have been turning their guns on their American and European advisers and trainers, sending a devastating message our way about the now-17-year-old American war there (even if we, in the U.S., have largely preferred not to hear it).
Since early July, Americans have died in five such attacks, including a sergeant major and the mayor of a town in Utah (deployed with his National Guard unit), while an American brigadier-general was among the wounded. This has left Americans in Afghanistan reportedly dealing with their Afghan counterparts largely by phone and email, rather than in person.
To put more than a decade of deaths-by-ally in perspective: historically, such numbers are, I suspect, simply unprecedented. No example comes to mind of a colonial power, neocolonial power, or modern superpower fighting a war with “native” allies whose forces repeatedly found the weapons they were supplying turned on them. There is certainly nothing in the American historical record faintly comparable — not in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian wars, nor in the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the last century, nor in Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, or even Iraq in this century. In this sense at least, Afghanistan is unique.
And here’s the thing: thought about a certain way, those aren’t the only kinds of insider attacks that Americans continue to experience, thanks to this country’s never-ending war on terror. There are others right here in the homeland, even if they’re never thought of as such. TomDispatch regular Rory Fanning who, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion, walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009 and then wrote a book, Worth Fighting For, about his experiences, is an expert on the subject. As he suggests on this Veterans Day, many of those like him who took part in America’s unending twenty-first-century wars brought those conflicts home with them. Sometimes, years later, they still experience what might be thought of as ambush-by-ally. Call this post-traumatic stress disorder or anything else you want, but such moments should be considered insider attacks and, as Fanning indicates, they are unlikely to end until America’s perpetual wars do. Perhaps it tells you all you need to know that neither discussion of those Afghan insider attacks, nor more generally of America’s never-ending wars played any role in the recent midterm elections.