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 move is the latest repercussion from a 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 re-vetting drive, first reported by The Washington Post, mainly affects a village militia known as the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, which is being trained by American special operations troops. U.S. special forces also mentor Afghan special forces and commando units, which underwent a rescreening last month, according to U.S. officials.
The training suspension, expected to last about a month, involves about 1,000 newly recruited members of the ALP, 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, which now total about 350,000 personnel, 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,” said Collins.
Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, a spokesman for a U.S. special operations task force in Afghanistan, said that he knew of only three attacks on coalition troops by local police. “We haven’t seen a huge insider threat in the (special operations forces) community, but we can’t ignore it,” he 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.
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 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 force is prone to abuse of Afghan civilians, with some of its members implicated in beatings, torture and abductions of villagers, as well as extortion.
The small special operations teams recruit, arm and train police in rural villages that are often far from other U.S. forces, potentially leaving them more vulnerable to insider shootings.
Such attacks have been a source of growing tension between Afghan and Western officials. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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. It blames other attacks on personal disputes inflamed b y cultural differences, fatigue and combat stress.
However, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently declared that “foreign spy agencies,” a phrase often used as code for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, 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.
The issue of insider shootings also fueled an ongoing clash between Karzai and the NATO force over a raid mounted by the coalition on 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 that 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 that 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, the chief of the ALP program, which operates under the auspices of the Interior Ministry. “Re-vetting may take place, but training will not be halted.”
Staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.