WASHINGTON — In the hours after a suspected coalition-trained Afghan soldier opened fire at Afghanistan’s national defense university, killing an American two-star general and injuring more than a dozen others, a question that has plagued U.S. efforts arose again in quiet murmurs at coalition bases and camps across that country:
How are we supposed to train people who often want to kill us?
Attacks by Afghan forces on their coalition partners — the Long Wars Journal has counted 87 since 2008 — reached a peak in 2012. That’s when the U.S. military imposed security and education measures intended to protect coalition troops from the very people they are supposed to help. Until Tuesday’s attack, those measures were thought to have been successful; it had been six months since a uniformed Afghan had attacked American soldiers.
But Tuesday’s attack raised questions about whether the respite was because of the increased security measures or whether it was just the benefit of the drop in U.S. interactions with Afghan soldiers occasioned by the draw-down of American troops. The answer may be important to the safety of the small number of men and women the United States plans to leave in Afghanistan for two more years after combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
In the last two years, the number of American troops in Afghanistan has shrunk considerably. Since March 2013, the U.S. headcount has dropped from 66,000 troops to 30,600. By the end of the year, the U.S. troop presence is slated to drop to 9,800.
What U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan have far less contact with Afghans than those deployed there in previous years. As the Afghans have taken over primary responsibility for combat, U.S. forces do not battle Taliban or jihadi elements as often as they did. The small forward operating bases characteristic of the American presence for so much of the Afghan war have been abandoned, and the U.S. has consolidated what forces remain in a declining number of facilities, which most rarely leave.
When the gunfire erupted on Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, 55, was surveying a water treatment facility at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University outside Kabul, the Afghan capital. According to the Associated Press and NBC, the shooter, a two-year veteran of the Afghan army who went by just one name, Rafiqullah, had returned to the base from patrol shortly before the shooting. Unlike his colleagues, he did not turn in his NATO-issued M16 assault rifle. Instead, still wearing his uniform, he hid in a bathroom and shot from a window 100 yards away as Greene and several coalition commanders were conducting their visit, according to CNN. According to the Afghan Defense Ministry, an Afghan soldier shot and killed the attacker.
Greene was struck more than once, a defense official told McClatchy. In Kabul on Wednesday, generals and rank-and-file alike gathered in what is called a ramp ceremony to salute as his remains were placed on a U.S. aircraft bound for home. The body is expected to arrive at Dover Air Force Base early Thursday morning.
Greene was deputy commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which leads the coalition training effort. While he was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to have been killed in combat overseas since the Vietnam War, the circumstances of his death were all too familiar.
Since Dec. 1, 2009, when President Barack Obama announced the time line for the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, training Afghans has been the keystone to bringing, in Obama’s words, “this war to a successful conclusion.”
Coalition forces have sought to build an Afghan force large and capable enough to fend off a Taliban and Islamist threat when the U.S. effort winds down.
Such a mission has demanded that U.S. troops work and live alongside Afghans, even as scores have turned on their trainers. At the peak of such attacks, there were 47 incidents in 2012 that caused 62 deaths, according to the coalition. According to Long Wars Journal, a publication that keeps the most detailed records of such attacks, there have been 87 green-on-blue incidents since January 2008.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current Afghanistan commander, sought to put in new safety measures upon his arrival two years ago; his confirmation hearing was consumed by questions about green-on-blue attacks.
Among the measures was insistence that armed “guardian angels” be stationed at U.S. posts to watch for suspicious Afghan behavior and special training for U.S. troops in ways to avoid cultural missteps that might unintentionally offend Afghans. There were also efforts to train troops on psychological warning signs that someone could turn.
Citing security reasons, the U.S. military refuses to detail what other steps have been taken to mitigate the threat.
But those on the ground say many of the measures aren’t followed in practice. They note, for example, that in many cases they remove their helmets and body armor as a sign of respect when meeting with their Afghan counterparts.
And it was not lost on anyone that Tuesday’s shooter made it into the Afghan army two years ago, in spite of a supposedly tougher vetting process imposed to make sure Taliban fighters aren’t allowed to join up. A U.S. official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject told McClatchy that investigators so far have found no obvious links between the shooter and the Taliban.
A joint Afghan-coalition investigation has begun. But in past instances, answering why such attacks happen has frequently eluded authorities. So often such incidents end with either coalition or Afghan soldiers killing the attacker, eliminating any chance of asking him what motivated his actions.