The US military trainers handed the new recruit, Mohammad Ismail, his AK-47 to defend his remote Afghan village. He turned around and immediately used it, spraying the US soldiers with bullets and killing two — the latest of nine US service personnel gunned down in two weeks by their supposed Afghan allies.
The shooting in western Farah Province was not the only such attack on Friday. Hours later, a few provinces away in Kandahar, an Afghan soldier wounded two more coalition servicemen.
One turncoat attack per month raised eyebrows last year. One per week caused concern earlier this year, but when Afghan forces turn their guns on international trainers twice in a day — as they now have two weeks in a row — it is hard to argue there is not something going on. The question is, what is it?
The US-led alliance says it is too soon to tell what is behind the rash of insider attacks. The most likely explanations: Either the Taliban are increasingly infiltrating the Afghan police and army, or relations between Afghan and US forces are turning toxic — or both.
“There’s no positive spin on this,” said Andrew Exum, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security who has advised the top US generals in Kabul.
That is bad news for the US exit strategy for Afghanistan, which has seen Washington spend more than US$20 billion on training and equipping a nearly 340,000-member Afghan security force.
The coalition has downplayed the attacks as anomalies and mostly a result of personal grievances, even as their numbers soared from 11 last year to 29 so far this year.
Some historians are hard-pressed to find precedent for this in previous wars.
“I have never heard of anything in Vietnam comparable to what we have recently experienced in Afghanistan,” said James McAllister, a political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.
Exum said the attacks have “tremendous strategic impact” beyond the 36 coalition forces killed this year because they hit international troops’ morale and weaken support for the war in the US and other NATO nations training Afghan soldiers and police to take over security nationwide by 2014.
What is unclear, he added, is how much influence the Taliban actually have in organizing the increasing numbers of attacks.
The insurgents have been happy to take credit. The Taliban’s supreme leader, mullah Mohammad Omar, boasted on Thursday that the insurgents “have cleverly infiltrated into the ranks of the enemy” and were killing a rising number of US -led coalition forces.
Afghan military analyst Amrullah Amman has no doubt that Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces is rising. He said that despite new methods of screening, it’s simple to forge documents and invent references in Afghanistan.
“The gate is wide open. The enemy is infiltrating because they see it’s very easy,” Amman said.
Afghan soldiers interviewed by AP earlier this year offered their own explanations: The Afghans feel disrespected, the soldiers said. They complained of getting inferior equipment and condescending treatment by US forces.