The murders on Saturday of five NATO soldiers by a Taliban suicide bomber who enlisted as an Afghan National Army soldier marked the latest in a rising toll of coalition troop deaths at the hands of Afghan security forces they are attempting to train.
Since January, 13 troops with the International Security Assistance Force have been killed when Afghan police, soldiers or security guards — or insurgents who infiltrated their ranks — attacked coalition forces. These types of killings have accounted for the deaths of at least 38 coalition personnel since 2009, according to a Stars and Stripes review, constituting roughly 3 percent of the hostile fire deaths among troops during that time.
By comparison, 27 troops were killed by mortar or indirect fire attacks launched by insurgents during that same time period, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Surprisingly, the killers are not usually Taliban sleeper agents or impostors. They often appear to be regular Afghan troops who start shooting after some dispute with coalition troops, according to the NATO command in charge of training Afghan security forces.
“[The shootings are] usually related to people getting into arguments,” said Lt. Col. David Simons, spokesman for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, who said his conclusion was based on incident reports.
“Let’s put it in the vernacular of a bar fight. But here, they have weapons,” Simons said. “It’s just, somebody told them to do something. Or they didn’t like the way they were talked to.”
The attacks could also reflect the larger cultural clash between Western troops and their Afghan counterparts.
“There’s a cultural misunderstanding,” said Thomas Barfield, the chairman of Boston University’s Anthropology Department, who has spent years in Afghanistan, beginning in the 1970s. “The Afghans see stuff as offensive. The Americans don’t think they’re giving offense.”
For example, the different ways that Afghan and Western soldiers handle their weapons can set up conflicts, Barfield said.
“Afghans do not have what the American military considers good control over their weapons,” he said. “They point them at people. So American troops yell at them. So you’ve got people with lethal weapons. You have not instilled enough discipline in the [Afghan recruit]. And an insult an American might consider mild, an Afghan might consider deadly.”
The opportunities for conflict are numerous, said Barfield, whose most recent visit to Afghanistan was in February. Encounters with Afghan women can be especially sensitive.
“The Americans say, ‘We didn’t disrespect the women.’ The Afghans say, ‘You weren’t supposed to see them at all,’ ” Barfield said. “It shows the men as powerless, and it’s an insult to their honor.”
The ISAF Joint Command has played down the killings of coalition forces by Afghan security forces, calling the incidents rare, random and inexplicable.
“Each of these appear to be isolated incidents and the circumstances regarding each vary,” an ISAF spokesman, Maj. Michael Johnson, told Stars and Stripes in an email. “As to why these happen, we’re not going to speculate. That seems more a question for the perpetrators.”
Officials of the joint command said they have not studied possible motives for the killings.
According to a Stars and Stripes review of media reports, in addition to the 13 coalition forces killed this year, 15 coalition personnel were killed by Afghan security forces in 2010 and 10 in 2009, when ISAF began expanded efforts to train Afghan soldiers and police.
The dead included troops from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, and the killings took place in all parts of Afghanistan.
The ISAF Joint Command’s own tally of such killings, provided last week at Stars and Stripes’ request before Saturday’s latest incident, showed just three since January; 15 last year; and eight in 2009.
The command said it did not count cases in which Afghan security guards, as opposed to Afghan soldiers or police, were the shooters, such as the guard who killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded four others near Kandahar last month. The guard worked for an Afghan security contracting business and opened fire with an AK-47.
Some of the shooters identified in media reports were likely Taliban fighters who’d gotten uniforms, weapons and access to their victims on patrol or inside military bases, the joint command said.
“Within Afghanistan, it is possible to purchase ANSF uniforms on the open market,” the command press office wrote in an email. The command said it had no tally of Afghan-uniformed insurgents who killed coalition members.
But reports and classifications are murky at best.
After two Italian soldiers were shot, one fatally, in western Afghanistan in February, the Italian defense minister told reporters that the shooter was likely a Taliban infiltrator who had somehow gotten close to the soldiers with a ruse, “perhaps by claiming problems with his weapon.”
Since the shooter had escaped, the defense minister said, “there was no way to say” whether he had been an impostor or an actual Afghan soldier.
Likewise, the killings last November of two U.S. Marines in Helmand province were attributed initially only to “small-arms fire.” But an unnamed NATO official told Agence France-Presse that the small-arms fire had come from an Afghan soldier.
In one of the worst cases, the shooter was reportedly a Taliban sleeper agent posing as an Afghan border policeman. He killed six U.S. soldiers in eastern Afghanistan during a training mission on Nov. 29, 2010.
And after five British soldiers were killed in November 2009 in Helmand by an Afghan policeman, a father of one of the victims told the BBC that his son had previously told him that the Afghan policemen they were working with varied from day to day, and no one really knew who was who. The Taliban later claimed credit for that attack, according to the BBC.
ISAF Joint Command officials said that incidents in which Afghan security forces turned their weapons on coalition troops were negligible in the larger context of the number of partnered operations with the Afghans: 3,900 so far this year; 10,400 last year; 530 in 2009.
“Our partnership with ANSF is very strong and continues to grow,” the IJC said in an email.
But not everyone agrees. Some German troops refused to patrol with their Afghan partners after three Germans were shot to death and six were wounded in February by an Afghan soldier on such a patrol, according to the German publication Spiegel Online. British and U.S. soldiers have also expressed distrust of the men they’re charged with training.
“Especially when we’re on the range and they have weapons,” Marine Lance Cpl. Abel Hernandez told Stars and Stripes last November. “It crosses our minds.”
In addition to the killings, there have been an unknown number of incidents in which Afghan forces almost fired on their Western trainers, fired and missed, or fired and wounded a coalition soldier. Often, the Afghan shooters escaped, suggesting that other Afghan troops sympathized and didn’t attempt to stop them.
Two years ago in Wardak province, for example, an Afghan policeman opened fire on U.S. soldiers, spraying them with about 50 rounds, wounding one soldier. This was after the Americans, at the request of local Afghan leaders, had removed their body armor as a sign of respect.
“He kept repeating in Dari, ‘I did this for my prophet,’ ” 1st Lt. Julian Stewart told Stars and Stripes at the time. “The whole time [this was happening], the ANP (Afghan National Police) are doing nothing.”
Some of the attacks could also have been vengeance for the ill effects of a decade of NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Afghans have been infuriated by night raids, forcible entries, damaged property and checkpoints.
Simons at the NATO training command said that the process to weed out unstable or criminal Afghans from security forces is improving as NATO moves to complete training of 134,000 Afghan police by November, up from 122,000 now, and increase the number of soldiers from 155,000 to 171,600. He said in addition to drug testing and a biometric scan checked against an admittedly incomplete database, recruits must also have a recommendation from two village elders.
Barfield was skeptical.
“How do they even know they’re real elders?” he said. “Did they give us the village [troublemaker]? We don’t really know.”