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Afghanistan 'insider' attacks pose threat to West's exit strategy

As the 10th American this month is slain by a supposed Afghan ally, the wider repercussions of the shootings come into focus.

August 20, 2012|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghans look at a patch of blood after an explosion at a cemetery in Lashkar Gah killed a police official and his brother as their family visited the grave of a relative. Elsewhere, another American service member was killed in an "insider" shooting, the 10th this month.
Afghans look at a patch of blood after an explosion at a cemetery in Lashkar… (Abdul Khaleq, Associated…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — They've been cut down while working out in makeshift gyms, as they bedded down for the night in remote combat outposts, after shrugging off heavy packs and sweat-soaked body armor when they returned from patrol.

At the height of this dusty summer, American troops are dying at unprecedented rates at the hands of their Afghan allies. And both sides are struggling to explain why, even as they search for ways to stem what are known in military parlance as "insider" attacks.

This month, at least 10 U.S. troops — including a U.S. service member shot Sunday and five members of America's elite special-operations forces slain earlier — have been killed by Afghan police, soldiers or civilian workers at military installations. As of Sunday, that accounted for a stunning 32% of the 31 American military fatalities in Afghanistan reported thus far in August by the monitoring website icasualties.org.

Aside from the devastating emotional blow dealt to families of the slain service members and the effect on morale in field units, insider shootings have wider-ranging repercussions. They have provided a propaganda bonanza to the Taliban, and could threaten a linchpin of the Western exit strategy: training Afghan security forces in preparation for handing over most fighting duties to them by 2014.

The military says only a very small share of insider attacks is carried out by Taliban "sleepers" in the police or army. But that opens the way to perhaps an even more alarming conclusion: that the majority of the assailants are undertaking what are in effect spontaneous, self-assigned suicide missions, because many insider shooters are killed on the spot in return fire.

The military says it is working to address the threat. Changes in recent months have included the posting of armed Western troops — so-called guardian angels — to watch over others in mess halls, sleeping tents and gyms. Last week, the American commander of the NATO force, Gen. John Allen, ordered that NATO troops across Afghanistan keep a loaded magazine in their weapons, even when on base.

This year, an Army captain described an informal buddy system at his base of troops signaling each other to keep a close watch on armed Afghans nearby, especially if one of their comrades was diverted by some task.

"'Shona-ba-shona,' OK," the captain said, invoking the "shoulder-to-shoulder" slogan of the NATO force and its Afghan partners. "But also: 'Eyes on, all times.'"

In public, Western military officials in Afghanistan have consistently sought to play down the overarching significance of such attacks, describing them as an occasional violent anomaly in an otherwise effective and mutually respectful working relationship between Afghan security forces and the NATO troops training them.

"Every day, you have 500,000 soldiers and police working and fighting side by side — you talk to these guys, and they tell you they are building trust and friendship," said Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, referring to the approximate combined numbers of Afghan and Western forces.

But disquiet is being expressed in high echelons. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panettatold reporters in Washington last week that he was "very concerned" about the recent spate of insider attacks, and he called President Hamid Karzai over the weekend to talk about the need for tougher selection standards for the Afghan armed forces. How to guard against such attacks is the subject of considerable debate in military leadership circles, because overtly heavy-handed measures can send a signal to the Afghans that they are not trusted, which can be taken as an insult. And in traditional Afghan culture, perceived insult can swiftly lead to exactly the sort of violence the attacks represent.

Efforts on the Afghan side include assigning undercover intelligence officers to some battalions, and stricter scrutiny of recruits, including the collection of biometric data to compare against a database of known insurgents. Some observers, though, believe the safeguards built into the recruitment process, including the requirement that village elders vouch for those who want to join the army, are routinely bypassed in many provinces.

"It all goes to the vetting process, to the hurry the international community is in to produce soldiers," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament and broadcaster.

Many explanations have been floated for Afghans turning their guns on members of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization force: stress, battle fatigue, personal antagonism, cultural misunderstandings, copycat psychology, heat-of-the moment disputes in a society where arguments are often settled with a Kalashnikov.

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