ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — NATO forces Sunday were investigating whether the weekend shooting deaths of a U.S. soldier and an American civilian contractor in Afghanistan were the result of an insider attack or linked to insurgent gunfire.
If confirmed as an insider attack, it would be the latest in a disturbing surge of so-called “green-on-blue” killings that have threatened collaboration between Afghan and NATO forces ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014.
The attack, which occurred late afternoon Saturday in the eastern province of Wardak, came just days after top U.S. military officials had said joint operations between U.S. and Afghan forces were resuming following a temporary halt imposed by the U.S. because of the rising number of insider attacks.
Gen. Abdul Qayuum Baqizoi, Wardak’s police chief, said gunfire broke out between NATO and Afghan army troops at a checkpoint in the province’s Sayedabad district. Three other NATO soldiers were injured in the gunfight. Three of the seven Afghan army soldiers deployed at the checkpoint were killed in the gunfire, Baqizoi said. A “misunderstanding” led to the incident,” Baqizoi added, but he would not elaborate.
On Sunday morning, a short statement issued by NATO described the incident as “a suspected insider attack.” A joint NATO-Afghan security force investigation into the attack was underway, according to the statement.
However, at a news conference early Sunday evening, Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, a deputy coalition forces commander, said NATO and Afghan military officials were still trying to determine whether the incident was triggered by firing from insurgents, adding that the “circumstances were somewhat confused.”
“There was a report of insurgent firing taking place in this incident, which we believe may have been a factor,” Bradshaw said. “We are trying to establish whether it was an insider attack or whether the initial exchange of fire was provoked by insurgent firing.”
Bradshaw did not provide any further details on the incident.
More than 50 U.S. and coalition troops have been killed in insider attacks this year, a significant jump from 2011, when 35 NATO soldiers were killed in such attacks. U.S. officials have said that the Taliban insurgency accounts for about a quarter of the attacks, either through infiltration of Afghan security forces or influence on Afghan troops. Disputes stemming from cultural differences are also often cited as a cause for the attacks.
Roughly 15% of all NATO troop deaths in Afghanistan are the result of “insider” shootings. More than 1,950 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan during the 11-year conflict, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks NATO troop deaths in Afghanistan. The toll passes 2,000 when U.S. troops who died outside of Afghanistan of wounds suffered in the war are included.
Insider attacks are becoming a major impediment to Washington’s exit strategy in Afghanistan, partly because cooperation between U.S. and Afghan security forces is needed as NATO continues to hand over more responsibility for securing the country to Afghan troops. That cooperation includes joint NATO-Afghan troop operations to track down insurgent commanders and fighters, as well as a continued step-up in alliance training of Afghan soldiers and police.
Earlier this month, NATO responded to the rise in insider attacks by temporarily suspending joint operations with Afghan security forces unless approved by a high-ranking regional commander. The restrictions remain in place, but last week officials in Washington said cooperation on joint operations had resumed.
--Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad and Aimal Yaqubi in Kabul, Afghanistan
Photo: Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, deputy commander of coalition forces, reacts during a news conference Sunday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Jawad Jalali / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.