REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. and NATO soldiers have been ordered to take extraordinary precautions against being shot by Afghan troops, including designating “guardian angels” to keep watch at joint bases around the clock, according to a senior military official.
Any time a group of Western soldiers is gathered on a joint base to exercise, train or even sleep, one member of the unit is required to be armed and on alert for possible fratricide attacks, the official said, describing the new requirement.
In addition, soldiers working in headquarters buildings or as advisors in Afghan ministries have been told to move their desks so that their backs are no longer facing the door, said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was discussing sensitive security measures.
Some soldiers have been given permission to carry weapons into certain Afghan government buildings where they were not allowed to be armed in the past, the official said.
The steps were ordered by Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, several weeks ago. Officials said the order came in response to an incident in which two American officers were gunned down at the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul.
"Gen. Allen did exactly what any good commander would do,” said Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “He ordered commanders to take appropriate steps to protect his troops, prudent steps that make sense to our Afghan partners as well. But he also made it clear that we weren't coming to all stop, that the work must continue, and that we couldn't let the partnership itself become a casualty of war."
Kirby said the security moves were described to Afghan officials before they were put in place.
So far this year, at least 16 NATO service members have been killed by Afghan soldiers and policemen -- or militants disguised in uniforms -- according to U.S. officials, and 52 servicemen have died in such attacks since 2007. The increase in fratricide attacks has continued this month in the wake of an alleged massacre of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan.
On Monday, two British service members were killed by an Afghan soldier in front of the main gate of a joint civilian-military base in southern Afghanistan. A U.S. soldier was killed by an Afghan policeman, officials said.
On Tuesday, several Afghan soldiers were arrested after authorities found suicide vests inside the country's defense ministry. The vests were apparently intended to be used as part of an attack, though not one believed to be aimed at U.S soldiers, officials said.
The “tactical directive” issued by Allen that outlines the new security steps warns troops to be on guard against fratricide attacks and to watch Afghans they work with for signs that they are becoming radicalized, the officials said.
U.S. and Afghan troops work and live in close quarters in many bases across Afghanistan, and U.S. officials say they are sensitive about putting in place new security measures that suggest a lack of trust between allies,fearing that they will make cooperation and joint operations more difficult and tense.
But they say that Allen decided he had no other option except to order additional security measures as the number of fratricide attacks has continued to go up. Allen, who flew to Pakistan for talks with officials there Tuesday after two weeks in Washington, met with President Obama at the White House this month and discussed the fratricide problem in the course of their meeting, the officials said.
Allen alluded in passing to the requirement for troops to have a “guardian angel” at a Pentagon news conference Monday, but he did not go into detail about the new security steps.
“We have taken steps necessary on our side to protect ourselves with respect to, in fact, sleeping arrangements, internal defenses associated with those small bases in which we operate, the posture of our forces, to have someone always over-watching our forces,” Allen told reporters.
For years, U.S. officials have insisted that fratricide was a small problem and that the attacks were “isolated” and carried out generally by disaffected or unbalanced Afghans, not Taliban infiltrators. But Allen seemed to give a different assessment in his appearance with reporters.
Attacks by rogue Afghan troops and police on American soldiers are simply “a characteristic of counterinsurgency [operations],” Allen told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. U.S. and Afghan military leaders are taking steps to curb the incidents, but cannot prevent all of them, he said.
Still, he said the U.S. believes that the majority of the attacks are committed by Afghan troops who are “gradually self-radicalized,” not by Taliban infiltrators.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Marine General John Allen, the chief U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week in Washington. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images