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Afghan Attacks On Western Partners Rising Sharply

Afghan soldiers (right) patrol with U.S. troops in the Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan in May. The two armies have been working together for years, but Afghan attacks against U.S. and NATO forces have been rising recently.
David Gilkey

In the past two weeks, seven Afghans in uniform have opened fire on Western forces. The most recent incidents occurred Friday. First, a newly recruited policeman in western Afghanistan turned his gun on U.S. military trainers, killing two and wounding a third. A short time later in southern Kandahar province, an Afghan soldier shot and wounded two foreign troops.

Such assaults were rarely heard of a few years ago. This year, they account for more than 10 percent of the deaths among NATO troops in Afghanistan. Many say Taliban infiltration is to blame for the increase, despite rigorous vetting measures. Others say the majority of the attacks stem from personal disputes.

The attacks continue to raise serious questions about the Afghans' ability to maintain security after the U.S. withdrawal of troops, set for the end of 2014.

Afghan army recruits undergo vetting at places like the biometrics office at the Kabul Military Training Center.

There, an Afghan soldier asks 19-year-old recruit Saeed Hassan about his ethnicity, then types the answer into a U.S.-provided laptop. His fingerprints, physical characteristics and personal history are also recorded and run through databanks.

The goal, says Afghan Col. Mohammad Akbar Stanikzai, is to root out anyone with a criminal record or links to militants among the 8,500 recruits who are processed there each month.

I wouldn't say it's normal, but I think it's understandable in a war situation which is lasting for more than a decade and the presence of foreign troops doesn't seem in the eyes of many Afghans to have brought positive changes.

The Afghan intelligence officer says applications that used to be one page are now three pages. Recruits must also provide written character references from village elders as well as stamps of approval from a host of government agencies.

The process for vetting Afghan National Police recruits is similarly complex in a country where most people are illiterate. Stanikzai says the stringent vetting is necessary to prevent militants from infiltrating the Afghan national security forces.

Susceptibility To Taliban Influence?

Yet he and many other Afghans blame the Taliban when asked why members of those security forces are turning their weapons on their Western coalition partners in such alarming numbers.

Stanikzai says even experienced troops who have served loyally can become disillusioned with the country's continued insecurity and economic pressures, and that makes them susceptible to Taliban persuasion.

Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network agrees that constant battlefield pressure can lead to a breakdown of relationships between Western and Afghan troops.

"I wouldn't say it's normal, but I think it's understandable in a war situation, which is lasting for more than a decade, and the presence of foreign troops doesn't seem in the eyes of many Afghans to have brought positive changes," he says.

That's a sentiment Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid says his group hopes to exploit. He claims that increasingly, Afghans are beginning to reject the presence of foreigners in the country.

But the NATO-led coalition dismisses such assertions. Coalition officials blame many of the attacks on personal disputes, and they say such incidents are rare.

"We must not forget that as we speak, we have about 500,000 soldiers and policemen working together today and fighting together, sleeping in the same tents, some of them, eating the same food, drinking the same water," says Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz of the German air force, the top coalition spokesman. "And when you talk to those guys, they build actually trust, they build friendship."

Addressing Underlying Issues

Nevertheless, some officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, say the attacks are damaging troop morale on both sides.

"Relationships among militaries are built on confidence and trust, and obviously this undermines that, or attacks that confidence and trust," Cunningham says. "But it's also something I think that both our folks and the Afghans are determined to get over."

Others are not as convinced. Some analysts question whether the recruitment is being rushed because of the Western plan to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghans before most of the international troops depart.

The shooter who killed the two Americans on Friday was a new recruit for the Afghan Local Police. These are village militias that NATO forces are creating and training.

Daoud Sultanzoi, an Afghan TV host and former lawmaker, says it's paramount that both Western and Afghan officials get to the bottom of such attacks.

"Those we are training to rely on and deliver responsibility," Sultanzoi says. "If they're doing this, then what are we doing wrong?"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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