US forces in the dark about Taliban infiltration in Afghanistan

U.S. and coalition commanders are no closer to knowing how deep the Taliban has penetrated Afghanistan’s security forces despite increased efforts to flush out infiltrators who are carrying out attacks against Americans.

"As for what percentage of the insider threat is related to infiltration or radicalization, I mean, it's really difficult to determine," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday.

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"I'm sure a certain percentage of it is. And we're treating it … as a threat," he told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Taliban double agents, posing as members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), are responsible for executing some of the deadly "insider" attacks that have killed 51 coalition troops, mostly from the United States.

In the most recent incident, Afghan forces on Saturday killed an international service member, later identified as an American, in an apparent insider attack in eastern Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. A NATO contractor and two Afghan soldiers also died.

In response to the violence, Afghan and coalition leaders have expanded their counterintelligence efforts to pinpoint where and how Taliban operatives are working their way into the ANSF pipeline.

"We're looking really hard at co-option and infiltration" of the ANSF by the Taliban, Brig. Gen. Roger Noble of the Australian Army said during a briefing last Wednesday from Kabul.

Counterintelligence operatives have already been embedded within U.S. military units and Afghan security forces at the battalion level and above, according to the Pentagon.

Gen. John Allen, head of all American forces in Afghanistan, has also instituted a so-called "after action" group that analyzes insider attacks to help determine the affiliations of the perpetrators.

Additionally, Afghanistan's military and intelligence leaders have begun planting dozens of intelligence officers within the military and national police forces across the country to ferret out Taliban operatives or sympathizers.

Afghan intelligence officials have even gone so far as to ban on all cellphones by new ANSF recruits as a way to limit potential communication between those recruits and Taliban commanders.

But in spite of this work, U.S. and coalition commanders still only have a vague handle on the Taliban's hold among Afghan soldiers and police.

As insider attacks spiked over the past few months, DOD officials estimated that roughly 25 percent were either directly carried out by Taliban agents or by Afghan forces allied by the terror group.

Noble backed off that assessment during his briefing with reporters earlier this month, however. "There are different levels of confidence in exactly what the motivation was for the individual. And in some cases, they're just links to the insurgency," Noble said. "We've got no actual proof that … was the motivation for the attack."

While Allen's “after action” teams have helped uncover the cause for some of the insider attacks, the problem is U.S. and NATO forces rarely get a chance to interrogate the attackers after the fact.

"Generally speaking we lose access to these individuals either because they're killed or they escape," Dempsey said.

All that is usually left for the analysis teams to work with is forensic evidence at the scene, he added.

While that information can help coalition commanders adjust their defenses, it does little to identify whether the attack was the work of a Taliban infiltrator or a disgruntled recruit.

The number of insider attacks skyrocketed in March, as American units attached to the White House's 2009 troop surge prepared to pull out of southern Afghanistan. All American troops are expected to be out of the country by 2014.

Until March, the number of instances where Afghan forces turned their guns on coalition troops "basically kept pace proportionally with the growth of the ANSF," according to Noble.

"The question mark for us at present is what's happening now and what's happened in the last couple of months," Noble said.

That said, coalition forces have had some successes in stemming the flow of insider attacks against their troops.

On Monday, coalition forces for the first time were able to thwart a planned suicide attack against a U.S.-NATO base in Eastern Afghanistan, which was coordinated by a pair of Afghan militants looking to infiltrate the country's security forces.

The suspects, who were reportedly close to carrying out the deadly strike in Logar province, were arrested by a joint U.S.-Afghan special operations team, according to news reports.

The duo were in the "advanced stages" of planning for the attack and were in the midst of recruiting members of the ANSF before the special operations team made its arrests, according to coalition spokesman Army Maj. Adam Wojack.

But as Washington continues to eye the finish line in Afghanistan, the spate of insider attacks — no matter who is carrying them out — will likely continue all the way through the final withdrawal in 2014.

"I expect that there will be more of these high-profile attacks," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters Thursday. "The enemy will do whatever they can to try and break our will using this kind of tactic. That will not happen."

--This article was originally posted on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. and last updated on Sunday at 7:00 a.m.