Afghan special forces in Kabul after a Taliban attack there this month. (Ahmad Jamshid / Associated…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — For the first time, a member of Afghanistan's elite special forces has carried out a deadly attack against an American military mentor, a senior Afghan army official said Friday, an ominous escalation in the "green-on-blue" shootings that have threatened Western troops' partnership with the Afghan police and army.
Until now, rank-and-file members of the Afghan security forces had been responsible for most of the dozens of "insider" shootings targeting members of the NATO force in recent years. But Afghanistan's special forces are supposed to be selectively recruited, carefully vetted and better disciplined than ordinary soldiers and police officers.
Efforts to train the Afghan police and army are at the heart of the Western exit strategy, which is to be weighed at a NATO gathering in Chicago less than a month from now. After more than a decade of war, the United States and its allies are attempting to begin extracting themselves militarily while also affirming long-term support for Afghanistan.
The NATO force, made up predominantly of Americans, has already begun handing over security responsibilities to Afghans in wide swaths of the country. But with the Western combat role set to wrap up by the end of 2014, U.S. and allied troops face a tight deadline for preparing Afghan forces to take the lead in confronting the Taliban and other insurgents.
In conducting the training, Western troops work and fight alongside their Afghan counterparts, often at small, remote bases, a relationship that is meant to foster trust and understanding but which sometimes flares into lethal altercations.
The latest deadly insider attack came Wednesday at a joint base in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province, said Afghan army corps commander Gen. Abdul Hameed. He said a member of the Afghan special forces opened fire during a heated argument and killed an American soldier, whom he described as a member of the U.S. special forces. An Afghan interpreter was wounded, he said.
The NATO force confirmed the death on Wednesday of a Western service member at the hands of a man in an Afghan army uniform but gave no other information about the shooting. A military spokesman, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said he could not confirm the nationality of the service member killed, or address the Afghan claim that the assailant was a member of an elite force.
"Sometimes the information is correct and sometimes it is not," he said in an email. "I will allow our investigation to be completed before I speculate or state who the shooter was."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for planting the assailant in the ranks of the Afghan army, and said he acted at the group's behest. However, insurgents routinely make such claims after attacks occur. Western military officials have said that assailants often have other motives, such as personal quarrels with their Western mentors.
Green-on-blue shootings are blamed for at least 16 deaths this year among NATO troops. Overall Western military fatalities total 131 in 2012, according to the website icasualties.org.
Underscoring the prevalence of the insider problem, another such shooting took place about 24 hours later, also in Kandahar province. Masoon Khan, the police chief in the Zhari district, outside Kandahar city, said a quarrel broke out between Westerners and Afghans staffing a joint checkpoint and that at least one Afghan police officer opened fire, injuring two troops whom Khan identified as American. Two policemen were then killed in return fire from the NATO troops, he said.
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.