Afghan and NATO troops patrol in a village in eastern Afghanistan's… (Jose Cabezas, AFP/GettyImages )
KABUL, Afghanistan — Across Afghanistan, at combat outposts in the wind-scoured desert and the jagged mountains, it was daily routine: A small group of Afghan police or soldiers and Western ground troops would gather their gear and set out together on a foot patrol or a village visit.
In its most sweeping response yet to "insider" shootings that have seen 51 Western troops killed this year by Afghans in uniform, the NATO force is halting, at least temporarily, joint patrols and other small-unit ground operations by Afghan and foreign troops unless specifically approved by a high-ranking regional commander, military officials said Tuesday.
The move calls into question what has been the centerpiece of the Western exit strategy: foreign forces training Afghan counterparts by working closely with them in the field, with the aim of readying the Afghan police and army to take the lead in fighting the Taliban by the end of 2014.
Western officials sought to portray the move as a relatively minor adjustment to the relationship with Afghan allies. NATO's International Security Assistance Force "remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our [Afghan] counterparts," it said in a statement.
But three junior NATO field officers in different parts of Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said the order would dramatically alter the tenor and tempo of activity. Before the directive, Western officials had touted the fact that up to 80% of missions were partnered operations involving Western and Afghan troops. Already, there is concern that without American and other Western troops to bolster them in ground operations, some Afghan units will balk at setting out alone.
Officials said the decision was prompted not only by insider shootings, which have accounted this year for about 15% of the NATO force's fatalities and seriously eroded trust between Afghans and Westerners, but also by the trailer of the crude anti-Islam film that has triggered furious anti-American protests across the Muslim world.
In Afghanistan, reaction has included a demonstration Monday in Kabul that left dozens of police officers injured, and a suicide attack Tuesday morning said to be in retaliation for the film.
Eight South Africans, a Kyrgyz national and three Afghans died in the attack when a female bomber rammed her car into a van carrying aviation workers to Kabul's international airport, Afghan officials said. The insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami, which has staged few attacks in the capital, claimed responsibility.
Western officials said the tempestuous atmosphere made it an appropriate time for American and allied troops to step back from public view.
"In this time of heightened tension, we are trying to reduce our profile somewhat," said U.S. Army Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the NATO force, describing the directive as a "prudent and temporary step."
"Will it have an impact? Yes, and we understand that," he said.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says the insurgency is responsible, directly or indirectly, for as much as 25% of insider shootings.
Some of the shooters have been planted by the Taliban, military officials believe, but sometimes Afghan soldiers and police come under pressure from the Taliban via threats to their families or are recruited to the rebellion's ranks while on leave. Other attacks stem from personal disputes, often fueled by cultural differences. Frequently, it's hard to determine the exact reason.
In one case in mid-August, a policeman who had joined a village militia just five days earlier opened fire as soon as he was handed his service weapon to begin his first weapons-training session. The attacker, Mohammad Ismail, killed two Americans and a member of the Afghan national police before being killed by return fire.
Days earlier, a police commander lured Marines to a meal during the holy month of Ramadan and then opened fire, killing three of them.
As a sign of how seriously the Pentagon takes the issue, the Defense Department released a statement Tuesday saying that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had sought advice on how to deal with insider shootings from his counterpart in the Russian military, which battled a U.S.-backed insurgency in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
Under the new directive, Afghan and NATO troops will continue to share jointly run bases. However, without the explicit permission of higher-ups, encounters between the two sides will be limited to meetings of officers at the battalion level, often in the form of planning sessions, military officials said.