Thursday, February 22, 2018

NATO moves to scale back partnering operations with Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO said Monday that it has scaled back operations with Afghan soldiers and police officers to lower the risk of insider attacks and reduce local tensions over an anti-Islam video that prompted protests in Afghanistan.

It's the second order that curbs contact between foreign troops and their Afghan partners, undermining the mantra that both sides are fighting the Taliban "shoulder to shoulder." The directive could jeopardize the U.S.-led coalition's key goal to get Afghan forces ready to take over security from foreign forces by the end of 2014 — just 27 months from now.

Until now, coalition troops routinely conducted operations such as patrolling or manning outposts with their Afghan counterparts. Under the new rules issued on Sunday by Lt. Gen. James Terry, such operations are no longer routine and require the approval of the regional commander.

Insider attacks have spiked in recent months.

So far this year, 51 international troops have been killed by Afghan forces or militants wearing their uniforms — a development that has fractured the trust between NATO troops and their Afghan allies. The disturbing trend comes as Afghans chanting "Death to America" have staged several recent protests against an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. The film also sparked demonstrations in other nations.

A protest in Kabul over the film, which mocks the prophet Mohammed, turned violent Monday, with hundreds of men torching tires, cars and shipping containers and lobbing rocks at a U.S. base on the edge of the capital. More than 20 police officers were injured by rocks before the protesters were finally dispersed by officers shooting in the air, officials said.

"Recent events outside of and inside Afghanistan related to the Innocence of Muslims video, plus the conduct of recent insider attacks, have given cause for ISAF troops to exercise increased vigilance and carefully review all activities and interactions with the local population," said coalition spokesman Jamie Graybeal.

Earlier this month, the U.S. military stopped training about 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police, a controversial network of village-defense units that is growing but remains a fraction of the country's army and police force, which will soon be 352,000 strong.

The coalition downplayed the impact of the directive, saying international forces had not stopped partnering with and advising Afghan forces. Coalition officials said the directive was given at the recommendation of — and in conjunction with —key Afghan leaders.

U.S.-led coalition companies remain partnered with Afghan units, but have changed the way they conduct their daily partnering operations, the coalition said.

"In the past, elements of a company routinely conducted operations — like patrolling or manning an outpost — with elements of the Afghan battalion," the coalition said in emailed statements to the Associated Press.

Under the directive, these operations are no longer routine and now require the approval of the general in charge of their regions.

The order will be in place for an undetermined period of time, according to Lt. Col. Rich Spiegel, chief public affairs officer for the coalition's operational command.

"It doesn't mean we're walking away from these units. We can advise from the next level up," he said. "It means we may not be out on patrol with them."

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