Understanding Green on Blue Attacks in Afghanistan

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“Green on Blue” attacks have been making a comeback recently. But the phenomenon of incidents in which an ally is attacked by an allied force is not recent—as the NATO nomenclature suggests, it goes back many years. Much of the language in current reporting unintentionally confuses what’s actually happening, though, because insider attacks are not Green on Blue attacks—they’re Red on Blue attacks.

Let me explain.

The color description of attacks depends on how NATO unit shapes are colored on a battlefield map. Blue is “friendly” forces (Americans represent their forces as Blue, for example, and other NATO country forces as Green). Green is “allied” forces (every non-U.S. NATO unit would be Green during a NATO exercise). Red is “hostile” or “enemy” forces—those opposing NATO and the U.S.

In the context of Afghanistan, then, from the U.S. perspective, all U.S. forces are “Blue.” All allies (Afghan, ISAF/NATO, non-NATO allies) are “Green.” And all Taliban and ISIS forces are “Red.”

A “Blue on Blue” incident is accidental friendly fire. Pat Tillman’s death would be “Blue on Blue.” This becomes more frequent as war increases in intensity and scale, because it’s easy to misidentify people during the confusion of war.

A “Green on Blue” incident is also friendly fire, but one in which an allied unit mistakenly opens fire on a U.S. unit. This is more dangerous for a number of reasons—it’s usually harder to reach them, there can be language problems, they look different—but fundamentally similar to “Blue on Blue” in the sense that it’s not war, it’s something different.

“Green on Green” is something we don’t really care about because by definition it never affects us, personally.

Anything “on Red” is acceptable and understandable, and while “Red on” anything is also understandable, minimizing those incidents is (along with all the variables that go into winning) the goal of war.

Is “Green on Blue” What’s Happening?

This is a serious question. If an ally’s soldiers demonstrate a pattern of misidentifying and mistakenly firing upon one’s forces, something might be to blame—such as, during WWII, the similarity between the profiles of a British Hawker-Typhoon fighter and a German Focke-Wolfe 190D (a similarity which contributed to a distinctive painting pattern for allied planes during D-Day).

But in Afghanistan, “Green on Blue” has come to mean “Any incident where Afghan police, military, or people masquerading as such kill ISAF [mostly U.S., but sometimes German and/or British] soldiers.” It encompasses Taliban “insider” or “sleeper attacks, as well as rogue attacks, and attacks that have no obvious political or social motivation.

These are not, then, “Green on Blue incidents.” Afghan police and military personnel are not confusing trainers or allied soldiers for Taliban. Nor is Afghanistan leaving their alliance with the U.S. in order to pursue its own policy toward the Taliban, and changing the legal relationship between Afghan soldiers and soldiers from other countries. No—these are “Red on Blue” attacks carried out by people who are masquerading as “Green,” or something else entirely.

So What Next

People in the military and the media should stop referring to attacks by Taliban sleeper agents as “Green on Blue,” because those are actually “Red on Blue” attacks. For those attacks that are not carried out by Taliban sleeper agents—attacks by criminals, or the insane—a different term might be employed instead: murder.

Suggesting that the attacks are systemic is a serious charge, and while it could be true, it’s certainly deserving of more study. Labeling or defining the nature of that systemic flaw “Green on Blue” is incorrect, and risks alienating those Afghan soldiers and policemen who are fighting alongside “Blue” or other “Green” forces.