CAMP GARMSER, AFGHANISTAN — When Marine Maj. Chris Bourbeau walked alone into an Afghan base last spring, he left behind his helmet, bulletproof jacket and rifle. Given the deadly insider attacks that had rocked U.S.-Afghan relations, he was putting his trust — and his life — in the hands of the Afghan troops he was training.
“I tell people who are visiting: ‘Take that stuff off. Your first line of defense is your rapport, not your gear,’” Bourbeau said.
That kind of cultural awareness and relationship-building is cited by a new Pentagon report noting the slight ebb in the deadly insider attacks on Americans by Afghan forces. Another reason is less encouraging: Americans have taken better measures to protect themselves.
New high walls and barbed wire divide U.S. and Afghan bases where troops once mingled relatively freely. New routines are in place, such as appointing “guardian angels” to watch other soldiers as they sleep in far-flung bases. More biometric and other background checks are run on the Afghans working with the Americans. Troops’ quarters and training areas are separate, and Afghans are forbidden to walk armed in most U.S. bases.
A few years ago, American troops had convinced themselves they could trust their Afghan colleagues while pursuing a strategy that called for empowering local security forces. It was a deadly miscalculation. Growing numbers of Afghan forces turned their guns on their coalition partners.
In its twice-a-year report to Congress this week, the Pentagon said insider attacks remain serious but are no longer the threat they were a year ago. At that time, a 120 percent rise in attacks from 2011 to 2012 threatened to derail the U.S. plan to leave small groups of trainers embedded among Afghan forces after the majority of troops withdraw by December 2014.
There were 22 attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in 2011, 48 in 2012, then seven attacks as of July. That’s compared with 20 this time last year, according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks.
The Pentagon report also reclassified nearly a dozen previous attacks on coalition troops and Afghans patrolling with them as insider violence, which raised the number of attacks from 88 to a total of 102 from 2007 through 2012. A total of 144 NATO troops — 92 of them Americans — died in those attacks. Seventy of the attacks were aimed solely at U.S. troops.
A senior coalition intelligence official said the incidents had been reclassified in some cases because new evidence came to light, such as an Afghan soldier being arrested for acting as a Taliban infiltrator and admitting to staging past attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the review process by name.
A count kept by The Associated Press has 72 troops from the U.S.-led NATO coalition killed by insider attack from January 2012 to July 2013, including nine so far this year.
To help stem insider attacks, both NATO and Afghan security forces devoted more counterintelligence resources to monitor communications by Afghan troops on leave, including whom those troops associated with when visiting family at home. The Pentagon report said U.S. counterintelligence teams identified 85 Afghans suspected of posing an insider threat and removed them from their posts, while several dozen more were being monitored.
The report said U.S. troops were also given more training on being “more conscious of treating Afghans with appropriate dignity and respect,” a strategy that guides Bourbeau’s approach to working with his coalition partners.
“I make a point to get to know everyone on this base who carries a gun,” Bourbeau said, a reporter beside him as he approached the Afghan guard at the main gate, hand outstretched to shake the Afghan’s hand.
Bourbeau was one of a few dozen Marines living at Camp Alamo, a small base next to Camp Garmser, which houses several hundred members of the 1st Brigade, 215th Corps Afghanistan National Army, though separated by high walls and security checkpoints.
It was one of those Afghan troops Bourbeau had befriended who saved a group of expatriate contractors when a young recruit enraged over an anti-Muslim film grabbed a gun, climbed a watch tower and opened fire on their truck as they left the adjacent U.S. base.
“He was a young kid who had just seen television for the first time in his life the night before,” Bourbeau said. The film on Afghan TV that night was the same one that triggered protests across the Middle East around the anniversary of 9/11 last fall.
Afghan army Sgt. Zarif Ali heard the shooting and charged the watch tower to protect the American Marines he assumed were the targets.
“He’d been shooting toward the Americans from the tower, so I aimed my weapon at him and told him to come down” or be shot, Ali said.
The young recruit gave himself up, and the sergeant won the trust of the Americans and a promotion from the Afghan army.
There is far less trust at the small U.S. outpost next to an Afghan army and police post in the small town of Garmser, where an Afghan teenager killed three Marines last August. The teenager, employed by the Afghans, had free run of the once-open base. After the attack, the Marines installed a checkpoint and barbed wire to divide the Americans from the Afghans and posted 24-hour guards.
In larger bases like Forward Operating Base Fenty in eastern Afghanistan, even deep inside the most protected parts of the base there are new guard posts — at the entrance to the gym, where everyone is unarmed, or at the exit from the dining hall.
Dozier, based in Washington, reported from Afghanistan in March and April 2013. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.