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French troop deaths spark worry over Afghan training mission

By Nancy A. Youssef and Ali Safi, McClatchy Newspapers –

KABUL, Afghanistan — The killings of four French troops Friday by an Afghan soldier they were training has renewed concerns — a decade into the training mission — that Afghans are growing increasingly disdainful of the U.S.-led coalition forces ostensibly there to help them and are striking back.

The American military has conceded that troop deaths at the hands of Afghans have climbed in the last six months but has refused to release statistics. The Pentagon hasn’t suggested any renewed security measures for American troops training their Afghan counterparts, a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014.

“We believe that they do appear to be increasing in frequency in recent months. What we can’t discern is a cause for that,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

“We’re certainly concerned about these incidents, and officials are taking a look at it,” he said. “But we also don’t believe that this is an endemic or systemic problem. The great majority of partnered operations, and frankly most of our operations are partnered, are done successfully, smoothly, efficiently.”

Coalition partners appear more concerned. The French suspended their mission in Afghanistan on Friday after the deaths of their soldiers and President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to pull his nation’s 4,000 troops out of the country altogether, saying he couldn’t allow allies to kill them.

“I cannot accept that Afghan soldiers fire on French soldiers,” Sarkozy said.

France’s contingent is the fourth largest in the coalition, after the United States, Great Britain and Germany.

“We are committed to continuing to work with the government of Afghanistan to resolve this very serious issue of individuals targeting our forces,” said Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the coalition’s commander. “We will pursue a full and complete investigation and will work closely with France on the outcome.”

According to Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, a man in an Afghan army uniform killed the four French soldiers and wounded 17 Friday afternoon in the middle of a joint fighting mission in eastern Afghanistan’s Kapisa province. The attacker was killed, Azimi said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, as it often does in such instances, though it isn’t always clear that the Islamist insurgent group has indeed infiltrated the Afghan security forces.

Regardless, such incidents suggest that the coalition’s biggest problem might not be the Taliban, but rather a growing sense of distrust between coalition and Afghan forces.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Air Force released a report on the killings last April of nine Americans by an Afghan soldier, which found deep contempt between Afghan and U.S. forces.

A report last May that commanders in Afghanistan commissioned found that 6 percent of coalition deaths from May 2007 to May 2011 were at the hands of what were supposed to be friendly Afghan soldiers.

Most of the deaths, the report found, happened after October 2009. The Obama administration began sending an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in January 2010, saying the mission would focus on training Afghan forces.

Since then, multiple reports and investigations have found that Afghans with no clear ties to the Taliban grow disillusioned and disgusted by their trainers.

The May report also found mutual disdain between American and Afghan forces. According to a survey of U.S. troops, 74 percent said the Afghans they were training were often on drugs. Many also described the Afghans as lazy and untrustworthy.

Afghan forces, for their part, described their coalition trainers as rude, crude and disrespectful.

The 436-page Air Force investigation released earlier this week included dozens of interviews with American troops who said they didn’t trust their Afghan counterparts. The report concluded that the shooter, Col. Ahmed Gul, who committed suicide in the attack at a base at Kabul International Airport, had acted alone but that his actions had popular support. Roughly 1,500 Afghans attended his funeral, the report said, including members of the Taliban.

Since then there have been a number of brazen attacks. In November, six U.S. service members were killed when an Afghan policeman they were training attacked them in Nangarhar province, along the Pakistani border, as they were climbing a ridge. The Taliban again claimed responsibility.

Some U.S. officials have suggested that the increase might simply be a result of the growing Afghan forces. Since November 2009, the Afghan army has expanded by about 80,000 soldiers to 176,000, according to U.S. military figures.

But coalition military officers in Afghanistan said privately that the pressure to build an Afghan army as quickly as possible had forced the coalition to work with Afghan soldiers who had few qualifications for military service other than that they were willing to join.

Moreover, because of the high turnover rate with the Afghan army, getting a uniform is relatively easy. The result is that coalition troops are living and working with Afghans they know little about, the U.S. officers said.

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