KABUL — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Saturday recalled all NATO personnel working in Afghan ministries in the Kabul area — a bold and potentially divisive response to the killing of two American service members by an Afghan security official in the country’s fortified Interior Ministry earlier in the day.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen’s directive comes five days after U.S. military personnel burned a pile of Korans at the largest military base in Afghanistan in an apparently inadvertent act that set off violent protests across the country. More than 25 Afghans have died in those demonstrations, and four NATO soldiers have been killed by men wearing Afghan security uniforms since Thursday, when the Taliban urged Afghan soldiers and police to turn their weapons on their Western counterparts.
Two U.S. military officers were killed in protests of the burning Korans by other NATO troops there. (Feb. 25)
The week’s events have exposed a core vulnerability of the Obama administration’s strategy for winding down the decade-long Afghan war: a fraying trust between two presumed allies who must depend on each other to keep the insurgency at bay.
Although mutual suspicions have been building for some time, the Koran burnings followed by the apparent revenge killings of U.S. military personnel will make it much harder for both sides to agree in the coming weeks on the specific terms and timetable of NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
NATO leaders are scheduled to hold a summit in May in Chicago, where they had hoped to finalize details of the withdrawal and the gradual handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, as well as report progress in fledgling negotiations with the Taliban.
But inflamed public anger among all sides could force a reassessment of those plans. Afghan patience is wearing thin with repeated acts of cultural insensitivity by foreign troops. Meanwhile, Americans and Europeans are growing increasingly resentful of the mounting number of treacherous attacks by Afghan forces they are trying to train.
The escalating tension here prompted apologies for the Koran burning from President Obama and several top U.S. defense officials. But demonstrations continued unabated Saturday, even before U.S. officials reported that an Afghan security officer had killed an American colonel and major in one of Kabul’s most important and most impenetrable ministries.
The two men, whose names have not been released, were shot in the back of the head while working at their desks.
Within hours of the attack, Allen recalled Western advisers from Afghan ministries, citing “obvious force protection reasons.” The decision will affect several hundred officials who work with the Afghan military and with a host of other government agencies, such as the education and agriculture ministries.
Fratricide has been a growing problem between Afghan soldiers and their foreign counterparts here. In the past, Western military advisers were told to operate cautiously after such incidents, but Allen’s decision represents the first time a commander has publicly withdrawn personnel from their posts for fear of attacks by men in Afghan uniforms.