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Attackers in uniform add to anxiety in Afghanistan

Foreign troops say they're increasingly concerned about the 'enemy within,' as deadly assaults by men who appear to be police or soldiers become more frequent. But those Western personnel also stress the importance of keeping anxiety in check in a climate of deepening mutual distrust.

June 26, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • An Afghan soldier peeps out a small window at a gateway to Kabul's airport after a shooting incident in April.
An Afghan soldier peeps out a small window at a gateway to Kabul's airport… (Musadeq Sadeq, Associated…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — In late May, a NATO soldier was killed as he emerged from his tent. Two weeks earlier, two NATO soldiers were killed while eating a meal. In late April, eight U.S. troops were shot dead at a meeting at Kabul airport.

The attacks had one thing in common: The killers all wore Afghan military or police uniforms.

Foreign troops serving in Afghanistan say they're increasingly concerned about the "enemy within." Yet they emphasize the importance of keeping anxiety in check amid a climate of deepening mutual distrust.

"You can't go out scared every day," said Sasha Navarro, an Air Force staff sergeant based at Camp Mike Spann in the northern province of Balkh. "You have to be confident in your training, and keep your head on a swivel."

Since March 2009, at least 57 foreign troops, including 32 Americans, have been killed in 19 attacks by Afghan service members. More than half occurred this year.

That has created something of a balancing act since President Obama's announcement that 33,000 U.S. troops are headed home by next summer: Protect yourself even as you engender the trust needed to transfer security to Afghan forces by 2014.

Maj. Gen. James Mallory, deputy commander for NATO training, said threats may include Taliban "sleeper" recruits who infiltrate the Afghan ranks; militants who use acquired uniforms to sneak onto bases; Afghan soldiers "turned" by blackmail, ideology or financial desperation; and stress-related cases in which a perceived insult or misunderstanding turns deadly.

Although the Taliban frequently claims responsibility for the attacks, fueling a myth of invincibility, the vast majority of cases involve stress or cultural differences, Mallory said.

"This is a society that for 30 years has been at war," he said. "Only now are we coming to terms with the effects of stress on the force."

Most Afghan and foreign troops get along well, he said, pointing out that the recent rise in killings dovetails with a proportionate rise in troops operating in the field.

Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University and author of a book on Afghanistan's cultural history, said the U.S.-Afghan cultural gap is enormous.

"It's like oil and water," said Barfield, who has been paying visits to the country since the 1970s. "Neither side knows what [angers] the other. American soldiers are fairly foul-mouthed. Afghans are from an honor-based society and feel disrespected."

A classified U.S. Army study based on 600 troop interviews, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, said "fratricide-murder" cases are provoking a crisis of confidence among Westerners working with Afghan forces. Recruits from the lower echelons of Afghan society are "somewhat prone to turning on and murdering their Western trainers," the report said.

Many Afghans interviewed for the report saw American troops as arrogant, culturally insensitive bullies who humiliated them by searching and disarming them in public and frequently violated women's privacy.

And American forces often characterized their Afghan counterparts as drug abusers and thieves who were also incompetent, corrupt and lazy with "repulsive hygiene."

Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy, spokeswoman for the NATO force in Afghanistan, said the report was systemically flawed and sensational, and relied on an inadequate sample, adding that "there will always be points of friction when cultures are forced to share close quarters and dangerous situations."

Despite Taliban boasts of responsibility, commanders in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said there's little direct evidence of sleeper cells or even much infiltration.

Still, they have stepped up countermeasures, including tougher screening for new Afghan recruits using iris scans, fingerprinting, drug-testing and database searches. And they've stationed more U.S. counterintelligence experts in Afghanistan to work with Afghan experts adept at recognizing cultural cues.

These include requiring that two elders vouch for every potential recruit, ensuring that they are well-known in the community, and flagging behavioral changes, such as when a moderately religious Afghan soldier becomes more hostile toward foreigners after time off, when he is most likely to face Taliban pressure.

By claiming responsibility for uniformed attacks, militants accomplish several objectives, said Amanullah Mojadidi, 40, a Kabul-based artist trained in sociology who easily procured several police uniforms and recently set up a fake checkpoint for a video art installation on corruption.

The attacks stir up suspicion between Afghan and foreign forces, he said. They make the Afghan people distrust symbols of state authority. And they deter job-seekers from joining the uniformed services, because Afghan police or soldiers are so often victimized by those posing as uniformed security personnel.

"It's very effective," he said. "Fear is a very important tool."

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