On Saturday, February 8, 2020 the news broke that U.S. Soldiers were involved in a firefight that caused several casualties. Two U.S. service members were killed and six others were wounded in an attack in Sherzad district, Nangarhar province. The Department of Defense identified the casualties on Sunday as members of the 7th Special Forces Group based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
SFC Javier Jaguar Gutierrez, age 28, of San Antonio, Texas
SFC Antonio Rey Rodriguez, age 28, of Las Cruces, New Mexico
The 7th Special Forces Group released a statement on Saturday evening:
“Several 7th SFG(A) Soldiers were injured or killed during combat operations in Afghanistan on February 8, 2020. The families of the deceased and wounded are being notified. In accordance with DoD policy, the names of the casualties are being withheld until 24 hours.”7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Twitter, @7thForces, February 8, 2020, 9:01 PM.
Editorial Note: This is a developing story and initial reports always tend to be wrong. This article will be edited as updates are provided by news media and the Department of Defense.
An Insider Attack? A possible insider attack in Shirzad, Nangarhar province may have occurred. Apparently it happened just after a ‘key leader engagement’. Most major news outlets are saying that it was a ‘green-on-blue’ incident; or as the U.S. military would phrase it – an ‘insider attack’. Then again, it could have been an incident where a member or members of the Taliban in an ANDSF uniform(s) managed to infiltrate and conduct an attack. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘sleeper cell’ operation. U.S. forces in Afghanistan tend to refrain from calling it an insider attack until an investigation is complete. Resolute Support (or USFOR-A) will usually say that an individual in a Afghan army or police uniform conducted the attack.
Most news reports say it was an individual in an Afghan police uniform. He seems to have acted alone and wielded a heavy machine gun (DShK?) on American and Afghan soldiers. The attack happened on an open field near the district center – the U.S. troops were waiting for a helicopter pickup. A Green Beret and an attached Special Operations Team – Alpha (SOT-A) member were killed. Two other Special Forces soldiers were severely wounded and others shot in the legs. Some reports indicate 8 Afghan SOF were killed.
Contested Province. The province is located in the eastern part of the country along the Pakistan border. The province is the location of one of the major border crossing sites on the Pakistan border. The south of the province has historically been an area under Taliban and / or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) control.
Dangerous District. Sherzad district is located in the western portion of Nangarhar province. The district’s southern boundary is shared by Pakistan. The border area is remote, mountainous, and has many routes that the Taliban use freely to enter and leave Afghanistan while crossing the Pakistan border where they enjoy sanctuary.
Casualties Are Confirmed. The initial news reports varied widely. Most reports indicated two Americans were killed and several wounded. In addition, there are three to eight possible Afghan security force casualties as well. The wounded have been evacuated to nearby field hospitals – probably Jalalabad and then on to Bagram Air Field. Some reports say that total casualties numbered about 17. More news will be forthcoming from the Department of Defense once the casualty notification process to families takes place. Typically the DOD announces the names of those killed in action 24 hours after family notification.
The U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) issued an initial statement on Saturday:
“A combined U.S. and Afghan force conducting an operation in Nangarhar Province was engaged by direct fire on Feb.8. We are assessing the situation and will provide further updates as they become available.”Colonel Sonny Leggett, Spokesman for USFOR-A
Later Saturday evening USFOR-A provided more details:
- Two U.S. service members were killed and six others wounded. The wounded service members are receiving medical treatment at a U.S. facility.
- “Upon completing a key-leader engagement at the district center, current reports indicate an individual in an Afghan uniform opened fire on the combined U.S. and Afghan force with a machine gun.”
- “The motive behind the attack is unknown at this time. The incident is under investigation.”
U.S. SOF and Partner Forces
United States special operations forces have been known to work with a variety of Afghan special operations units. These include Afghan National Army (ANA) special forces, ANA Commandos, GCPSU (police special units), National Mission Brigade, units of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Crisis Response Units, and Ktah Khas. U.S. special operations forces fall under the command of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan (SOJTF-A).
The insider attack in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, if it occurred, took place at a time when the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) had been heavily attacked by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces. There has been a three-way struggle for control of this region between government forces, the Taliban, and ISKP.
History of Insider Attacks
Insider attacks have been a problem during the many years of the Afghan conflict. The worst period of time for insider attacks was during 2012. As a result of the increased incidents of insider attacks during the later part of 2012 the United States and NATO troops sharply curtailed joint operations and advising with their Afghan counterparts. Many mitigating processes were put into place – such as ‘Guardian Angels’, reducing interaction with the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), counterintelligence vetting of Afghan recruits for the police and army, and other methods. 
The latest insider attack against Coalition forces occurred in September 2019 when three U.S. service members were wounded. A member of the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) fired on a convoy in Kandahar province. The attacker was killed by return fire. Afghan forces are also the target of insider attacks. In July 2019 an Afghan brigade commander was killed by two Afghan National Army soldiers affiliated with the Taliban.
Insider Threat Mitigation and Training
The U.S. military places a lot of emphasis and training on being aware of when and where insider attacks could occur and how to mitigate and respond to the attacks. The causes of an insider attack vary. Some of the leading explanations include:
- Cultural differences
- Acts of insensitivity
- Highly publicized events
- Improper screening of ANP or ANA recruits
- Taliban infiltration, coercion, or propaganda
A newly published manual provides guidance on how to reduce threats from foreign partner forces. Foreign Security Force Threats, ATP 3-37.15, January 2020 (74 pages) provides information on how to prevent insider attacks, how to respond to the attacks, how to develop a training program, and planning considerations for operations with partner nation forces. In the past, other guides have been published to provide insight to units and advisors on how to be safe while interacting with the Afghan security forces. 
Human and Operational Effects
It is always bad news when an insider attack occurs – whether it is green-on-green (Afghan on Afghan) or green-on-blue (Afghan on U.S. / NATO).  It is a tragedy for the families of the deceased. Of course, there is the domestic fallout within the United States when a service member is killed by a member of the security forces he is trying to train and advise.
In addition, these types of attacks affect the overall status of operations in Afghanistan. The element of trust takes time to be re-established. Each incident slows down the pace of operations and reduces the advisory ‘contact time’ between the advisors and trainers of the Coalition and that of the Afghan security forces. The insider attack in Nangarhar province – if that is what it is – will certainly set back the overall effort in Afghanistan for a few weeks, if not months.
 “Insider Threat in the ANDSF”, Afghan War News.
 ISAF Insider Threat Handguide 2.0, International Security Force Assistance, June 2014. This handbook was one of many steps taken to educate the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) about understanding how and why insider attacks take place.
 The use of colors to describe forces comes from the depiction of units on a map. Red are the enemy forces, blue are the U.S. forces, and green are the friendly forces.
For a detailed listing of insider threat references.