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Western troops take steps to avoid fratricide by Afghan troops

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — U.S. and NATO soldiers have been ordered to take extraordinary precautions against being shot by Afghan troops, including designating “guardian angels” to keep watch at joint bases around the clock, according to a senior military official.

Any time a group of Western soldiers is gathered on a joint base to exercise, train or even sleep, one member of the unit is required to be armed and on alert for possible fratricide attacks, the official said, describing the new requirement.

In addition, soldiers working in headquarters buildings or as advisers in Afghan ministries have been told to move their desks so that their backs are no longer facing the door, said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was discussing sensitive security measures.

Some soldiers have been given permission to carry weapons into certain Afghan government buildings where they were not allowed to be armed in the past, the official said.

The steps were ordered by Gen. John V. Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, several weeks ago after the burning of Qurans by U.S. personnel near Bagram air base in Afghanistan. The destruction of the Qurans sparked a surge of shootings by Afghans wearing military uniforms of troops from the U.S. and its allies. Officials said the increased security was ordered specifically in response to an incident last month in which two American officers were gunned down at the Ministry of Interior in Kabul.

So far this year, at least 16 NATO service members have been killed by Afghan soldiers and policemen — or militants disguised in uniforms — according to U.S. officials, and 52 servicemen have died in such attacks since 2007. The spike in fratricide attacks has continued this month in the wake of an alleged massacre of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan.

On Monday, two British service members were killed by an Afghan soldier in front of the main gate of a joint civilian-military base in southern Afghanistan. A U.S. soldier was killed by a local Afghan policeman, officials said.

On Tuesday, several Afghan soldiers were arrested after authorities found suicide vests inside the country’s defense ministry. The vests were apparently intended to be used as part of an attack, though not one believed to be aimed at U.S soldiers, officials said.

The “tactical directive” issued by Allen that outlines the new security steps warns troops to be on guard against fratricide attacks and to watch Afghans they work with for signs that they are becoming radicalized, the officials said.

U.S. and Afghan troops work and live in close quarters in many bases across Afghanistan, and U.S. officials say they are sensitive about putting in place new security measures that suggest a lack of trust between allies, fearing that they will make cooperation and joint operations more difficult and tense.

But they say that Allen decided he had no other option except to order additional security measures as the number of fratricide attacks has continued to go up. Allen, who flew to Pakistan for talks with officials there Tuesday after two weeks in Washington, met with President Barack Obama at the White House earlier this month and discussed the fratricide problem in the course of their meeting, the officials said.

U.S. and Afghan officials have also put in place an eight-step vetting procedure for Afghan army recruits in an effort to identify infiltrators, officials said.

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