After months of military leaders’ attempts to tamp down worries over the killings of US and NATO troops by the Afghan forces serving beside them, General John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, called an urgent meeting of his generals on Wednesday last week 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, NATO officials said, part of a new emphasis on protecting US 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 US 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 program 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 analyzed 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 program, which relies on trust and cooperation.
The stepped-up efforts to stop the attacks are an indication of how destabilizing 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 US 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 Allen’s emergency session, there were two more such attacks. Those assaults left two Special Forces trainers dead and two other US soldiers wounded.
“Regrettably, there will be more setbacks along the way,” Allen said through a spokesman on Saturday, “but our resolve is fierce, and our commitment to this fight is total.”
However, 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 Colonel Thomas Collins, director of public affairs for the US-led NATO coalition in Kabul.
The catalyst for the latest efforts to protect coalition forces was the attacks on Aug. 10 in Helmand Province that one military official called “game changing.” Shortly after midnight in Sangin, where Marine Special Operations troops met with 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, 160km to the south, sprayed machine-gun fire inside a makeshift gymnasium, killing three other Marine trainers.