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Insider Attacks Hinder Transition Out Of Afghanistan


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The big headline out of the U.N. general assembly has been about the speech by the Israeli prime minister who warned of the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Other speakers didn't get nearly as much attention.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The assembly will hear an address by his Excellency Hamid Karzai, president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Hamid Karzai's address made little news, despite highlighting efforts to bring the Taliban back into mainstream Afghan society.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: We have initiated the peace reconciliation process which aims to bring all elements of the armed opposition to peaceful lives in our country.

MARTIN: But the process of handing Afghanistan back to the Afghans is troubled. In a minute, we'll hear about how former Taliban who have been incorporated into the regional government in the Western part of the country are now intimidating Afghan farmers. But first, in recent months, suspected insurgents have been turning in their U.S. and NATO trainers in a series of insider attacks - more than 50 this year. NATO suspended joint patrols between international troops and Afghan forces a couple of weeks ago in the wake of these attacks. Last week, the U.S. secretary of defense announced that while the vetting process is being tightened up, most patrols have now resumed. But this morning NATO has confirmed yet another insider attack. It happened yesterday in Wardak Province. For more on this latest attack, we reached Quinton Summerville of the BBC in Kabul. Quinton, I understand details are sketchy but what do we know about this latest insider attack?

QUINTON SUMMERVILLE: This attack took place yesterday afternoon at around 5 o'clock in Wardak Province, not far from where I am in Kabul. It took place at a checkpoint. There was some kind of disagreement between Afghan National Army soldiers and the American patrol, which was taking place in that area. We don't know what sparked that argument but it resulted in a firefight. And as a result of that firefight, an American soldier was killed, we believe the 2,000th American soldier to die in Afghanistan. An American contractor also died. And in the exchange of fire, three National Afghan Army soldiers were killed.

MARTIN: Quinton, what's the response from NATO and U.S. commanders on the ground? I mean, presumably, they've been tightening up the vetting process to make sure these attacks don't happen. What are they saying now?

SUMMERVILLE: We've had a very forceful response from the international mission here in Afghanistan. You'll remember that recently they suspended all routine joint patrols between Afghans and the coalition forces in the hopes that that would, if not reduce these insider attacks, these green-on-blue attacks, but make some kind of difference. Well, for at least a week we haven't seen an insider attack but they've started again. So, there's a great deal of frustration. I think that many commanders here at headquarters in Kabul will be galled by the fact that this 2,000th soldier wasn't killed by the Taliban. He didn't die in a fight. He was killed by an ally, by the ANA. What's happening across Afghanistan at every base, whether it's large or small, NATO and American forces are reassessing how they interact with Afghans. They are checking the distance between them. Where do you clean your weapons on the base? Where do you eat on the base? Where do you sleep on the base? How close are you at any time to Afghan police or Afghan National Army? There is an acceptance, though, by the international mission that despite all the efforts they're making, they will never completely stop these green-on-blue attacks. Let me just say though I think one of the key factors here is there's clearly a crisis of trust between American soldiers, coalition soldiers and their Afghan partners. But that crisis of trust extends beyond that. It extends to different countries as well. There's a crisis of trust between the electorates in Britain, in the United States and in Afghanistan. And commanders in ISAF know that. They know that the support for this war, which is already very shaky, is being eroded by these green-on-blue attacks.

MARTIN: Thanks very much. The BBC's Quinton Summerville in Kabul. Thanks so much, Quinton.

SUMMERVILLE: You're welcome. Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: Joining me now is Seth Jones. He's an analyst with the Rand Corporation. He has just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. Hi, Seth. Thanks for being here.

SETH JONES: Great to be here. Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You were in the country looking at the al-Qaida presence, and I want to ask you about that in a minute, but sticking with the impact of these internal attacks and training. From what you have been able to discern, is the U.S. still on pace to train 352,000 Afghan troops up to snuff by the end of 2014?

JONES: Well, that number will likely come down somewhat because of budget cuts. I think in general my assessment is the Afghan National Army is pretty good right now. There are variations in the quality of the force. I think the biggest challenge, frankly, will be the national police force, which really needs to be trained. It was late in the process in getting going and still poses huge challenges in running itself.

MARTIN: And how does that affect the overall strategy?

JONES: Afghanistan is a rural insurgency. The national police force is absolutely critical to hold territory in rural areas. The biggest challenge, I think, with a national police force that is not up to holding territory in rural parts of Afghanistan, and what you'd see, I think, is a loss of ground to Taliban and Haqqani Network insurgents in parts of rural areas that were under NATO or Afghan government control. But any counterinsurgency, successful counterinsurgency, requires a good national police force. This one is, it's an open question right now.

MARTIN: You were in the country looking specifically at al-Qaida's presence in Afghanistan. What did you discover?

JONES: Well, I think the biggest challenge actually is that there are and there continue to be a broad range of militant groups in Afghanistan that transit the Afghan-Pakistan border pretty broadly. They include the Pakistan Taliban. They include Laskhar-e Taiba(ph) fighters. And this is important because it was the Pakistan Taliban that conducted the attempted attack in Times Square. So, I think more broader than al-Qaida what we have is a range of militant groups operating along the border that if the U.S. pulls out too quickly from these areas you get a very serious extremist Islamic group presence along the Afghan-Pakistan border. I think that is an extremely dangerous outcome.

MARTIN: Seth Jones is an analyst with the Rand Corporation. He's also the author of a book called "The Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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