KABUL, Afghanistan -- American special operations forces have suspended the training of new recruits to an Afghan village militia until the entire 16,000-member force can be rescreened for possible links to the insurgency, U.S. officials said Sunday.
The training halt is the latest repercussion stemming from a damaging series of “insider” shootings carried out by members of the Afghan police and army against Western troops. Forty-five NATO service members have been killed in such attacks this year, and the U.S. toll in August alone was 12 dead.
The revetting drive, first reported by the Washington Post, mainly affects a U.S.-backed village militia known as the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, which is trained by American special operations forces. U.S. special forces also mentor Afghan special forces and commando units, which also underwent a brief training suspension during rescreening.
The ALP training suspension, expected to last about a month, involves about 1,000 newly recruited members, said Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. NATO’s training of the far larger Afghan national army and police force -- whose numbers total about 350,000 -- will continue, he said, as will joint military operations between Western and Afghan troops.
“While we have full trust and confidence in our Afghan partners, we believe this is a necessary step to validate our vetting process and ensure the quality … of the Afghan Local Police,” Collins said.
The move to rescreen members of the ALP was galvanized by the Aug. 17 shooting deaths of two American special operations troops in western Afghanistan. The assailant, a new ALP recruit who had just been issued a weapon, promptly turned it on his U.S. trainers.
Insider shootings have been a source of growing tension between Afghan and Western officials. The NATO force says about one-quarter of the attacks can be attributed to the Taliban, either via infiltration or the insurgents prevailing on those already serving in the police or army to open fire on NATO troops. Most of the other attacks are blamed on personal disputes inflamed by cultural differences, fatigue and combat stress.
However, President Hamid Karzai recently declared that “foreign spy agencies” -- a phrase that is often used as code for Pakistan’s main intelligence service, the ISI -- were the primary culprit behind the attacks. The American commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, urged the Afghans to share any intelligence that would lend credence to that theory.
[Updated 10:50 a.m. Sept. 2: Insider shootings also fueled an ongoing clash between Karzai and the NATO force over a raid mounted by the coalition Saturday after an assailant in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on Australian troops, killing three.
The Afghan leader claimed the NATO raid killed two Afghans and resulted in the improper detention of nine others. He also asserted it had been carried out without the knowledge of authorities in Oruzgan province, violating an agreement between his government and the NATO force.
The Western military said the raid was a joint operation with Afghan troops and that one of those detained had aided the man who shot the Australians.
In another sign of a disconnect between the Karzai government and the NATO force over insider attacks, some senior Afghan officials directly involved in the ALP program professed to know nothing of the announced training suspension.
“The matter is under discussion,” said Gen. Ali Shah Ahmadzai, chief of the ALP program, which operates under the auspices of the Interior Ministry. “Revetting may take place, but training will not be halted.”]
The Afghan Local Police initiative has been hailed by U.S. officials as the most effective means of fighting the insurgency in rural communities where the regular Afghan army and police are spread too thin or not present at all. American officials want the force to nearly double in size from its current strength.
But critics say the ALP is prone to abuse of Afghan civilians, with some of its members implicated in beatings, torture, abductions and extortion of people in the villages it is meant to be protecting.
Photo: Afghan Local Police at a ceremony in April 2011 at Gizab village southwest of Kabul. Credit: Kamran Jebreili / Associated Press