Army Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Spino, a combat medic, was helping unload supplies at a remote base in Afghanistan last week when a dispute broke out between Afghan and western soldiers. At an increasing number of bases, Afghan and U.S. and other western troops are living together, an arrangement intended to accelerate the training and advising of Afghan security forces. Last week's confrontation erupted when an Afghan soldier was refused access to a landing apron where a helicopter was about to descend. Angry shouts were exchanged, and then the Afghan soldier raised his rifle and shot, wounding two Italian soldiers and killing Spino, a 45-year-old from Waterbury, Conn.
The tragedy suggests why it will be difficult for the Obama administration to reach its goal of training enough Afghan soldiers and police to begin taking over security duties by themselves within 18 months. The work that thousands of American military and civilian personnel already are doing in Afghanistan -- training, mentoring, and advising Afghan security forces -- depends on trust. And when men of different cultures, languages and temperaments are walking around with guns, trust is difficult to build and can be shattered in an instant.
The risks will increase in the months ahead as tens of thousands of additional American troops pour into Afghanistan with the direct mission of training and operating with Afghan soldiers and police.
Obama, in announcing his new Afghan plan Dec. 1
, said a key goal is to "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.'' The 30,000 additional troops he is sending into Afghanistan, the president said in his West Point speech, "will increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and [will] partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.''
At present, about 6,000 U.S. military personnel along with some 800 American civilian police are directly involved in training Afghan security forces
. Many of them are assigned as "embedded'' trainers, meaning that they live directly with Afghan units. In reality, however, virtually all U.S. troops are working closely with Afghan police or army units, many of them living in joint compounds like the one where Staff Sgt. Spino was killed last week.
In one joint base I visited in eastern Afghanistan, a wall separated the American living quarters from those of the Afghan soldiers. When I went with the U.S. company commander through a gate to chat with his Afghan counterpart, we all wore body armor and helmets and an armed security detail came with us. And in the eastern Afghan city of Gardez, when an American officer stopped several armed Afghan police to upbraid them for sloppiness (shirts untucked, no helmets, no boots), I noticed the American officer's security detail were fingering their weapons nervously.
That police headquarters was attacked by Taliban insurgents
two weeks ago; the insurgents fought their way into a class being taught by western trainers and were only repelled after a four-hour firefight. Four Afghan police and three civilians were reported wounded.
Working closely with Afghan security forces is "certainly a risk,'' Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview with Stars and Stripes
newspaper. "The benefits,'' he added, "are worth the risk.''
Under the new U.S. strategy approved last month by Obama, the risk will increase for U.S. troops.
In proposing the new strategy to Washington, Gen. Stanley McChrystal called for a "radically expanded and embedded partnering'' of U.S. military personnel with Afghan units. Success in this mission, McChrystal wrote, "will require trust-based, expanded partnering with the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces, which include army and national police]."
Further, McChrystal has urged American and allied troops to get out of their armored vehicles and take off body armor and helmets, which he said "convey a high sense of risk and fear to the population.'' He said the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan "cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.''
But experience has shown the risk can be severe.
In Afghanistan's Wardak Province this fall, Army 1st
Lt. Julian Stewart was visiting an Afghan police chief when the Afghan officer demanded to know why the Americans were wearing body armor. Not wanting to appear rude, Steward ordered his men to shuck their gear. Shortly afterward, according to a lengthy account in Stars & Stripes Mideast edition
, an Afghan policeman opened fire, spraying the compound with 40 to 50 rounds.
Luckily, only one American soldier was wounded. The others returned fire, dropping the Afghan. "He kept repeating in Dari, 'I did this for my prophet,' '' Stewart told Stars and Stripes, adding that the other Afghan police stood by and did nothing during the incident.
In November, five British soldiers living in a compound with Afghan national police in Helmand province were killed by a policeman who fled after the killings, according to British authorities who described the killer as a "rogue'' policeman. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and may have infiltrated the police force.
Two American soldiers, Sgt. Aaron Smith of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade, and Pfc. Brandon Owens, an MP with the XVIII Airborne Corps, were killed in October, reportedly by an Afghan policeman who was in the pay of the Taliban.
Even some Afghan army commanders complain that the police are in league with the insurgents.
In Mazar-e Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, police "surrendered their weapons'' to Taliban insurgents, said Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahmani, commander of the 209 Shahin Army Corps, according to a dispatch of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
, a nonprofit organization that supports local journalism.
"The police and the [insurgents] are from the same area,'' he explained. "They collude with each other.''