The Marine Corps is responding to a troubling rise in insider attacks by providing close-range defensive marksmanship skills to advisers who mentor Afghan forces. But the program could have significantly broader applications as the service winds down its mission in Afghanistan and expands its focus on training foreign militaries in other geopolitical hot spots, observers say.
Designed by the Advisor Training Group at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., the program teaches Marines last-resort self-defense techniques to employ when a shooter opens fire with intent to kill. It was developed at the request of Marine commanders in theater concerned for the safety of their personnel, who must interact with their Afghan counterparts in small operations centers and other confined spaces where Marines may be armed only with a pistol.
Marine officials stress that the best defense against insider attacks is rooted in trust, which grows from dedicated relationship building, and careful understanding of foreign cultures and sensitivities. That's a focal point of all Marines' pre-deployment training. But when a situation becomes hostile, Marines must be prepared to protect themselves.
"The teams downrange are concerned about it," said Maj. Christopher McArthur, training officer for the group, alluding to the so-called green-on-blue threat — military-speak for attacks perpetrated by insurgents and others believed to be allies. "We have a responsibility to teach this."
The increase in green-on-blue incidents has fostered mistrust and significantly changed day-to-day life for Marines and other coalition troops at forward operating bases throughout Afghanistan. This year, through the end of October, at least 52 coalition troops had been gunned down by members of Afghan security forces — or people posing as them. November marked the first month in 2012 during which no U.S. troops were killed in a green-on-blue incident, a potentially promising trend that continued through the first two weeks of December.
But foreign military advisers could be at particular risk, as they typically operate in small 20- to 30-man teams, often in isolated locations far from major coalition bases. They live with their Afghan counterparts and, in some cases, rely on them to provide security, said Lt. Col. Thomas Chalkley, the Advisor Training Group's operations officer. Because the mission requires a certain maturity, "professional competence and military know-how are considered the dominating factors in selecting advisers," he said.
Security Force Assistance Adviser Teams, or SFAATs, are composed of Marines from various units. One SFAAT preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan attended the adviser training course at Twentynine Palms in November. The bulk of its workup centered on proven methods for relationship building, McArthur said. But on the last day, they headed out to the pistol range and took part in some unconventional target practice.
Everything on the range was set up to resemble an office environment. Armed only with 9mm M9s, the Marines learned how to defend themselves while seated in chairs behind desks, or while walking through makeshift plywood hallways. They pulled their weapons on multiple human-shaped targets, firing lethal head and torso shots from distances as close as one foot. Point-blank range.
"Marines participating in the defensive marksmanship training engage targets from angles of attack that are more difficult to react to," Chalkley said. "The training simulates an ‘inside the wire' setting, and while shooters are in positions and states of readiness that might be more common in social settings than a traditional battlefield."
Also noteworthy, this live-fire training is conducted without personal protective equipment — again, to more accurately simulate the otherwise unsuspicious circumstances under which insider attacks can occur. Officials running the range obtained a waiver that allows Marines to train without their safety gear.
"Marines train the way they fight," Chalkley said. "Our students train in the gear they will be wearing when most vulnerable to an insider attack. That means what they would wear on a forward operating base or outpost. That means just their pistol."
Military officials are cautiously optimistic about the recent lull in green-on-blue incidents, but deployed troops remain on alert. Defensive marksmanship training is just one of the ways the Marine Corps is responding to concerns from operating forces, said Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for Regional Command Southwest, which includes about 7,000 Marines based in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"It is designed to complement the current force-protection measures that have been put in place in Afghanistan since mid-August, along with the in-country training being conducted to mitigate insider attacks from happening, as well as to see the warning signs before they happen," he said.
In March, the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned pointed readers of its monthly newsletter to an Army pamphlet aimed at countering inside-the-wire attacks, a document that emphasizes cultural sensitivity, as well as swift and "extreme violence."
And military commanders at the highest levels have stressed the importance of Marines and other coalition troops having "Guardian Angels" to watch over them during their downtime in theater. These "Angels" are armed, and they watch over groups of their comrades while they eat, rest — even use the bathroom.
And, of course, Marines receive extensive self-defense training through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. It prepares them for hand-to-hand fights and, according to the program manual, teaches Marines how to deal with the chaos and sudden escalations that can happen in close combat. During entry-level MCMAP training, Marines learn how to redirect bayonet attacks. Three levels later, during brown belt training, Marines are taught to disarm an aggressor who has a firearm.
Adding defensive marksmanship to a Marine's self-defense tool kit makes perfect sense, said Ben Connable, a retired Marine intelligence and foreign area officer who works as an international policy analyst for Rand Corp., a Washington think tank. He called it a "rational, reasonable and effective" solution for a real problem.
"I think the idea," he said, "is to hope to not have to do it, but be prepared if you have to."
Kyle Lamb, a former member of the Army's elite Delta Force and president of Viking Tactics Inc., which trains military and law enforcement personnel in shooting skills, said that while the need to react to the rash of insider attacks is unfortunate, the Corps is responding in the right way.
"What I always tell people," Lamb said bluntly, "is make sure you are vigilant, and vigilance is a plan to kill anyone that you meet."
That might sound coarse, he conceded, but that sort of thinking could save your life or that of your buddies. Training Marines to shoot at multiple obstacles or in tight spaces is a worthwhile endeavor, Lamb said. And being prepared to respond to an insider attack requires unconventional thinking.
"In my experience, when you come off a patrol, you do let your guard down," he said. "That's a mindset that we have to get through to these guys. … Just because someone is allowed to get onto your base doesn't mean they're good people."
While the Advisor Training Group's defensive marksmanship training is Afghanistan-specific, Marines will continue to be called to different parts of the world to train and mentor foreign militaries — some in regions with known anti-American factions, and where the threat of insider attacks certainly exists. Parts of Africa and Asia, for instance, have seen marked increases in organized terrorist activity over the past decade or more.
Missions in places like Yemen, the Philippines and Indonesia could become more common — and more robust — as combat deployments to Afghanistan subside. Author Max Boot, who has at least one title on the Marine Corps' professional reading list, said that when countries are experiencing major political or socioeconomic transitions, it's not always clear whose side people are on.
"This is an area where training and experience are certainly very helpful," said Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's certainly something that is a real danger when things are unstable, uncertain and changing. Someone who happens to be a friend might not turn out to be one later."
As the Corps moves into more of these unstable regions, local loyalty will be uncertain, he said. Commanders and individual Marines will have to be mindful of the insider-attack threat as they work alongside less experienced militaries that don't necessarily screen recruits as scrupulously as they should.
"It's always a danger you face when you have sketchy allies you're working with in the developing world, [and] when you don't have very well-established … in-depth vetting," he said. "Working with troops in Mali or Yemen is different than working with British or French forces."
Connable, the retired Marine intelligence officer, said teaching Marines to react to insider threats only makes them better prepared to handle the unknown — wherever they are operating. Marines will continue to be involved in security force assistance missions, he said. And one of the Marine Corps' long-standing strengths is its ability to "train and educate Marines to be adaptive.
"This type of training," Connable said, "falls in line with that idea."
The desire to put a wedge between Marines and those they're mentoring can be a detriment if the fear of possible attacks starts to control the relationships, he said. But Lamb believes Marines can't be worried about hurting their advisees' feelings if there are trust issues.
"If they wonder why you can't [trust them], I think the writing has been put on the wall," Lamb said. "They just have to tell them, ‘We've seen in your past performance with you and your country-mates that you can't be trusted. … Sorry if that offends you.'"
Some Marines have been doing just that. Lt. Col. David Bradney, the battalion commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which operated out of Helmand province's Sangin district until this fall, had a straightforward message for the Afghan troops his Marines were working with.
"We just told them: ‘If we have one [green-on-blue] incident in Sangin, life as you know it will f---ing stop. So watch your people, make sure you understand what's at stake and don't f--- about,'" Bradney said.
It's a tenuous situation, to be sure. But that's the hard truth about the nature of such partnerships.
"If you believe they have the same beliefs and mission focus — you're wrong," Lamb said. "You can never let your guard down."