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Man in Afghan uniform kills three US troops

KABUL — Three American troops were killed by a man in an Afghan military uniform in Helmand province Friday, the latest of several similar incidents marking an alarming trend, as so-called “green on blue” shootings have become one of the biggest killers of coalition soldiers this year.

The three killed Friday were special forces Marines, according to media reports, which cited U.S. officials.

The attacks deal a serious blow to trust between international troops and their Afghan counterparts at a critical time; forces under the NATO umbrella are shifting to a training-and-advising mission that could make troops even more vulnerable to such attacks after combat troops leave by the end of 2014.

As the Obama administration simultaneously mulls future troop numbers and tries to persuade already wobbly NATO allies to continue support for a war the European public long ago soured on, the trend could make long-term military commitments in Afghanistan a tougher sell both at home and abroad, analysts say.

U.S. military officials have downplayed the effect of the incidents on trust between Afghans and coalition troops and dismissed what appears to some as rampant infiltration of the Afghan ranks, saying many of the shootings stem from arguments, rather than insurgent sympathies. Whatever the reasons, though, 30 coalition troops have been killed this year in such incidents, according to an Associated Press tally, four this week alone. So-called “green on blue” killings have accounted for more than 10 percent of coalition deaths this year.

As more and more troops leave, there will be fewer to protect trainers who work closely with Afghan soldiers, and those training troops may face additional risks.

“If there is a continued rise (in green on blue attacks) it will deepen the mistrust between the coalition partners and their Afghan counterparts,” said Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghanistan expert at the American Enterprise Institute who often gives lectures on Afghanistan to U.S. military personnel.

International Security Assistance Force spokesman Charlie Stadtlander said additional steps were being taken to protect troops, but did not offer specifics.

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“A lot of those steps include education and cultural sensitivity,” he said.

One of the most dangerous reactions would be to increase the distance between Afghans and coalition soldiers by introducing security measures that make Afghan soldiers feel less welcome and less trusted, said Maj. Fernando Lujan, a special forces soldier who has deployed to Afghanistan and currently is a visiting fellow at the Center for New American Security.

“What isn’t helpful is a knee-jerk reaction to suspend interations with Afghans,” he said.

While green on blue incidents account for only a fraction of coalition casualties, their symbolic value can far outweigh their military impact, Majidyar said.

“I believe it significantly undermines support for the Afghan mission in the United States and NATO countries,” he said. “It calls into question the viability and preparedness of Afghan forces.”

Eva Gross, a European foreign and security policy expert at the Institute for European Studies,  said if the trend continues, it will drive down already-low public opinion of the war in Afghanistan and make supporting future troop commitments more difficult for politicians.

“European militaries will think twice about if it’s worth the risk (in a country) where the strategic value is no longer clear,” she said.

Though attacks have spiked this year, ISAF spokesman Stadtlander stressed that such incidents remain rare.

“Of course we’re challenged by them, but for every one of these very isolated attacks there’s tens of thousands of examples of cooperation between Afghans and coalition troops,” he said “The daily cooperation is what rebuilds trust and confidence.”

The attacks also bring into question the vetting process for Afghan recruits, which relies heavily on letters of recommendation from village elders, which can easily be faked. Though U.S. officials dispute it, the Taliban has claimed to have recruited many of the assailants in the green on blue incidents. Majidyar said that in their zeal to build up the Afghan Security Forces quickly, Afghan military leaders have been lax about looking into recruits’ backgrounds.

Stadtlander would not discuss specific plans to revamp the vetting process, but said the procedures are constantly being re-evaluated.

Looking toward 2014, Lujan said, it will be crucial to increase understanding with Afghans and that means sending troops who know the country and the culture, and resisting the urge to rotate in too many troops new to Afghanistan just to get them combat experience.

“When you don’t have a whole battalion to back you up, you better be really aware of your relationship with Afghans, because you have to depend on them,” he said, adding, “If we’re drawing down the force posture there, and we’re going to have fewer soldiers on the ground, they better be the right ones.”

druzinh@estripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @
Druzin_Stripes
 

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