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. And in another major security breach, nearly 500 prisoners were freed from a heavily guarded jail when Taliban insurgents tunneled into it – a mission that Afghan officials believe occurred with the cooperation of prison guards. Fourteen Americans have been killed this month by members of the Afghan military.
Taken together, 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 members 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.
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. “You cannot read someone’s mind,” said Colonel Bahader, who, like many Afghans uses only one name. He described the chaotic scene in which some soldiers and officers fled the barrage of bullets, jumping out of second- and third-floor windows. “They had minor injuries, and some were wounded with broken glass,” he said. (New York Times) “Suddenly, in the middle of the meeting, shooting started,” Col. Bahader told reporters. “After the shooting started, we saw a number of Afghan army officers and soldiers running out of the building. Some were even throwing themselves out of the windows to get away.” (BBC)
Another Afghan officer on the compound identified the shooter as Ahmad Gul. “I’m amazed. I have no idea why he would do this,” the officer said. (Washington Post)
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but identified the assailant as a Taliban militant from a district of Kabul Province named Azizullah. A spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said in a telephone interview that the assailant “was living in Kabul and he got dressed in an Afghan military uniform, and when he ran out of ammunition he was killed by foreigners and Afghan soldiers.” (New York Times)
The Taliban said it had been working with the shooter for some time – an assertion that NATO denied. “We do not know why it started but there is no indication that a suicide bomber was involved and there are no reports that someone managed to get into the base to do this,” the NATO-led force said in a statement. (CNN)
Also denying the Taliban claim was the brother of the pilot. “My brother had no connections with the Taliban, and I deny any claims of his connection by the Taliban,” Dr. Mohammad Hosain Sahebi told a local Afghan TV station in a telephone interview. (CNN) He said his 48-year-old brother was in the Afghan Air Force for several years and was injured many times in plane crashes. The Afghan military, however, listed the pilot as being 50 years old. “My brother had mental sickness as the result of the plane crashes in 80s and also he had economic problems too,” Sahebi told local television. (CNN)
One witness, Jon Mohammad, a military pilot at Kabul Airport, told CNN that he jumped from a second floor window to the ground during the incident. He saw foreigners laying on the ground inside the first floor, he said. “He was a religious person, but I’m not sure if he had mental illness,” Mohammad said of Gull, the pilot. (CNN)
One Afghan air force intelligence officer at the meeting said the shooter opened fire with no warning and jumped out the window in a panic to escape, injuring his leg in the process, according to the officer’s son, Samin Haq Barwar.
The head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, said the program had “suffered a tragic loss from an attack, which occurred this morning, resulting in the deaths of nine coalition trainers.” (BBC)
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.
The other recent attacks carried out by Afghans in uniform have targeted the Afghan government and military, as well as foreign troops. Gunmen have penetrated the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, the Kandahar police headquarters and an Afghan army base in Laghman province. Earlier this week, the Taliban managed to free inmates from Kandahar’s largest prison by digging a tunnel into it from a house more than 1,000 feet away.
U.S. military officials say they have been expecting the Taliban to increase its efforts to infiltrate Afghan security forces – either to steal information or plan attacks. Officials generally classify such efforts in one of three ways: “pure” infiltration, when a recruit joins the security forces in order to carry out Taliban missions; “mimicry,” when an insurgent wears a security forces uniform as a disguise to gain access to bases; and “co-option,” when insurgents persuade a member of the security forces to help carry out a mission.
The gunman who opened fire in the Defense Ministry headquarters earlier this month was not a soldier but is believed to have been wearing an Afghan army uniform, while the suicide bomber who killed Kandahar’s provincial police chief was actually a member of the police force.
The suicide bombing at the army base in Laghman province, which killed fie American soldiers and four Afghan soldiers, was carried out by an Afghan soldier who had been on the force for 14 months, said a Western intelligence official.
In an earlier attack, an Afghan sergeant major admitted to orchestrating a suicide bombing after being promised by Badruddin Haqqani, a high-level insurgent in Pakistan, that a debt would be forgiven and he would receive $25,000 for his assistance.
In some cases, violence directed against the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan allies appears to stem from personal problems rather than Taliban ties. The Afghan border police officer who killed six American soldiers in Nangarhar province in November had a fight with his father on the morning of the shooting. Later in the day, he reached a “boiling point” and opened fire, the Western intelligence official said. “The number of true infiltration are relatively small, but we predict they will attempt to increase that tactic during the year,” the official said. (Washington Post)