New emphasis carries risk of alienating Afghan soldiers
After months of military leaders’ attempts to tamp down worries over the killings of U.S. and NATO troops by the Afghan forces serving beside them, Gen. John R. Allen, top commander in Afghanistan, last week called an urgent meeting of his generals to address the escalating death toll.
In a room crowded with more than 40 commanders, the General underscored the need to quickly stop the bloodletting that is sapping morale, according to NATO officials, part of a new emphasis on protecting American and NATO forces after a spate of attacks that included the killing of six Marine trainers this month.
In one of a series of recent steps, the military decreed that U.S. and NATO service members should always carry a loaded magazine in their weapons, to save precious moments if attacked by Afghan forces. Another initiative, now a top priority, is a programme dubbed “Guardian Angel” that calls for one or two soldiers to monitor the Afghans during every mission or meeting, officials say.
The “angels,” whose identities are not disclosed to the Afghans, must be prepared to fire on anyone who tries to kill a coalition service member.
The military has also analysed the attacks. But the results have been worrisome. Only a handful of the 31 attacks this year have clearly been a result of Taliban activity like infiltration. That suggests a level of malaise or anger within the Afghan forces that could complicate NATO’s training programme, which relies on trust and cooperation. The stepped-up efforts to stop the attacks are an indication of how destabilising the deaths of coalition troops at the hands of Afghan forces have become, and how much of a threat they pose to the transfer of control to the Afghans when NATO is set to leave in 2014.
They also come at a politically delicate time, just months before a presidential election in the U.S. and amid increasingly vocal complaints from outraged parents of dead Marines and soldiers that could diminish support for what is already an unpopular war back home.
It remains to be seen if the new measures will make a substantial difference: the attacks have continued despite earlier protections put in place. Just two days after Gen. Allen’s emergency session, there were two more such attacks. Those assaults left two Special Forces trainers dead and two U.S. soldiers wounded.
“Regrettably, there will be more setbacks along the way,” Gen. Allen said through a spokesman on Saturday, “but our resolve is fierce, and our commitment to this fight is total.”
But even the new emphasis on stopping the killings carries risks: Introducing barriers between NATO forces and the Afghan soldiers and police officers they are training runs the risk of worsening the tensions that have led to some killings.
“We have to have a balancing act between protecting our soldiers and not offending the Afghans we are partnering with,” said Col. Thomas W. Collins, director of public affairs for the American-led NATO coalition in Kabul.
The catalyst for the latest efforts to protect coalition forces was the attacks on August 10 in Helmand province that one military official called “game changing.” Shortly after midnight in Sangin — where Marine Special Operations troops met the Afghan local police they worked with — an Afghan wearing a National Police uniform opened fire, killing three of the Marines.
Hours later, a boy who worked as a tea server at a base in Garmsir — 160 km to the south — sprayed machine-gun fire inside a makeshift gymnasium, killing three other Marine trainers.
What was most alarming to some officials was that all the casualties in Helmand involved military trainers and not conventional infantry, who have typically been the targets of past such attacks. Because they were thought to have closer relationships with the Afghans, the trainers were believed to be safer.
“Wherever someone is from, they cannot tolerate negligence and degradation of their country’s sanctity, said Alaudin, an Afghan soldier in Khost province. Anyone who trains Afghan forces and “uses tough and derogatory language will get a similar reaction,” he said. Those who say “the Taliban infiltrated in the army,” and they are behind the attacks, he said, are “totally wrong.”
Sayed Rahman, a commander in Kunar province, blames many attacks on soldiers from rural areas whose customs clash deeply with their U.S. mentors.
“They do not know anything else except religion and their traditional codes,” he said. “They see attitudes of foreign forces alongside themselves which are not compatible to what they understand. That causes spite and resentment among them.”
Some Afghan commanders say attacks are simply a product of a violent society. “No one is safe now, everyone gets killed,” said Gen. Mohammad Zaman Mamozai, a senior police official in the Interior Ministry.
That could help explain an equally disturbing rise in attacks in which Afghan forces have attacked their comrades.
NATO officials do not have precise year-to-year figures, but there have been at least four such episodes just in the past month. — New York Times News Service
Keywords: Afghan crisis