KABUL, Afghanistan — A veteran Afghan air force pilot opened fire Wednesday inside a NATO military base, killing eight U.S. service members and an American civilian contractor who had gathered for a morning meeting, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The shooting was the deadliest in a string of recent killings carried out by members of the Afghan security forces against their colleagues and coalition partners. In April alone, there have been four separate attacks inside NATO or Afghan military bases by Afghan servicemen or insurgents dressed like them. Fourteen Americans have been killed this month by members of the Afghan military. There have been seven such attacks so far this year.
The spate of fraternal violence points to a serious problem with the loyalty of some members of the Afghan security forces and their vulnerability to infiltration by the Taliban. The problem, for the moment, appears to have no simple solution. The Afghan military has begun an assessment to identify vulnerabilities in bases, register every member in a biometric database and develop a counterintelligence force. But such measures are time consuming and still cannot prevent soldiers from spontaneously turning on their comrades and partners.
The attack Wednesday morning turned a routine meeting on the first floor of the air force building — on the military side of Kabul's airport — into a scene of bloodshed and mayhem. The American advisers had gathered there as they do daily, according to Afghan officers present, when a pilot who had served for about two decades in the Afghan air force suddenly opened fire.
Another account, provided by a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the air force officer got into a heated argument during the meeting, left the room, then came back and started shooting. It was unclear what the argument was about.
From his third-floor office, an Afghan air force general heard the gunfire and saw people jumping out of windows to escape the fusillade. In addition to the Americans who were killed, an Afghan soldier died and five others were wounded. A U.S. reaction force surrounded the building and neighboring offices and prevented people from leaving while they secured the scene.
The Taliban boasted that the gunman was a militant impersonating an army officer. The claim did not seem credible, however.
Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the gunman was an officer who had served as a pilot in the Afghan military for the past 20 years. The gunman — identified as Ahmad Gul, 48, — died in an exchange of fire that followed his attack.
The gunman's brother insisted he was not a Taliban sympathizer.
"He was under economic pressures and recently he sold his house. He was not in a normal frame of mind because of these pressures," said the brother, Dr. Mohammed Hassan Sahibi.
"He served his country for years," Sahibi told Tolo, a private television station in Kabul. "He loved his people and his country. He had no link with Taliban or al-Qaida."
Sahibi said his brother was wounded four or five times during his military service — once seriously when his helicopter crashed.
The Afghan air force, with about 4,000 members, is the smallest and least developed of the Afghan security forces. It has a small fleet of cargo planes and helicopters, although Afghan defense officials have been pushing for the United States to buy the force fighter jets.
NATO officials said the Taliban are quick to take credit for any attack that results in the death of pro-government forces. They say militants want to undermine trust between coalition and Afghan forces, who are increasingly partnered as the Afghans prepare to take the lead in securing the nation by the end of 2014.
Last year, there were 10,400 partnered operations — up from 530 in 2009, the coalition said.
Increased partnering has created bonds, but also friction among troops who have drastically different lifestyles, cultures and religion. Increased nationalistic rhetoric uttered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai also has fueled the rising anti-American sentiment among Afghans.
On April 4 in Faryab province of northwest Afghanistan, a man wearing an Afghan border police uniform shot and killed two American military personnel. NATO intelligence officials said the shooter was upset over the recent burning of the Koran at a church in Gainesville. The Koran burning, which Karzai denounced, also was the impetus for angry protesters to storm a U.N. compound in Mazar-i-Sharif on April 1 and kill four Nepalese guards and three international U.N. staffers.
In February, an Afghan soldier who felt he had been personally offended by his German partners shot and killed three German soldiers and wounded six others in the northern province of Baghlan.
In January, an Afghan soldier killed an Italian soldier and wounded another in Badghis province.
Before the airport shooting, the coalition had recorded 20 incidents since March 2009 where a member of the Afghan security forces or someone wearing a uniform used by them attacked coalition forces, killing a total of 36. It is not known how many of the 282,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in these type of incidents.
According to information compiled by NATO, half of the 20 incidents involved the impersonation of an Afghan policeman or soldier. The cause of the other 10 incidents were attributed to combat stress or unknown reasons.
Investigators are also trying to understand why an Afghan soldier walked into a meeting of NATO trainers and Afghan troops at a base in eastern Laghman province on April 16 and detonated a vest of explosives. The bombing killed six American troops, four Afghan soldiers and an interpreter.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which used information from the Washington Post and Associated Press.