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The recently retired U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan challenged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s description of an increase in attacks on U.S. forces by Afghan police and military as “last-gasp” efforts by the Taliban to sow chaos.
Ryan Crocker, who left his post as the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan two months ago, said in a brief interview yesterday in Washington that, while he didn’t want to contradict Panetta, “I will believe it’s their last gasp when I’ve got my boot on the throat of the last one of them.”
“We have seen the Taliban go from mass attacks to high- profile suicide attacks to the indiscriminate suicide bombings,” such as a Sept. 8 blast that killed six Afghan children and injured several others, Crocker said.
The Taliban “are tough, smart and resilient,” he said. “Don’t underestimate your enemy.”
Panetta, speaking to reporters in Tokyo yesterday, said President Barack Obama’s administration is concerned about the rising number of “insider attacks” on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops by Afghan security forces -- or men disguised as security forces -- that he blamed on the Taliban.
Panetta called the attacks “a last-gasp effort” to target coalition forces and “create chaos” because the Taliban have been “unable to regain any of the territory that they have lost” to NATO-led and Afghan government forces, according to a transcript of his remarks.
At the same time, Panetta said the attacks wouldn’t interfere with the U.S. transition plan, which involves training Afghans to take over their nation’s security and withdrawing U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014.
“We continue to work with the Afghan army to not only improve their operations and provide security, but to work with us on the effort to implement this transition,” Panetta said.
Panetta’s comments came a day before nine foreign civilians and three Afghans were killed by a suicide bomber who rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a minivan near the airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.
The Hizb-e-Islami, a militant group led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and allied to the Taliban, carried out the attack in retaliation for an anti-Islam video that has triggered deadly protests across the Muslim world, Zubair Siddiqi, a spokesman for Hizb-e-Islami, said by phone.
On Sept. 16, four U.S. soldiers who went to help Afghans during a battle with militants at a remote checkpoint were killed, apparently by Afghan police, according to the Associated Press.
The surge in insider, or “green-on-blue,” attacks is complicating the administration’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan while pulling out U.S. forces. The U.S. and NATO transition plan depends on recruiting and training Afghans to take over Afghanistan’s security from the current 112,579 U.S.- led international troops by the middle of next year.
The killings of international troops by their Afghan partners has raised questions about the vetting and training of Afghan personnel, and sharing duties and bases with them.
So far this year, there have been 37 attacks resulting in 51 deaths of international forces at the hands of Afghan allies or infiltrators, compared with 21 attacks resulting in 35 deaths last year, according to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, known as ISAF. In 2008, there were two insider attacks resulting in two deaths of coalition forces.
Coalition officials in Kabul said yesterday that the NATO- led force has scaled back operations with Afghan soldiers and police to diminish the the risk of insider attacks, especially with tensions high over the anti-Muslim video.
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the insider attacks “a very serious threat to the campaign” in a Sept. 16 interview with American Forces Press Service.
Aside from the spate of green-on-blue incidents, three groups of well-armed insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms attacked a coalition base known as Camp Bastion in southern Helmand province on Sept. 14. They killed two U.S. Marines and injured nine other coalition troops while destroying six AV-8B Harrier jets and damaging two others, according to ISAF.
One of those killed was the commander of the U.S. Marine air attack squadron, Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible, 40, of Huntingdon, Pa., the Defense Department announced yesterday.
The assault is prompting U.S. officials to review the coalition’s counterintelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance programs, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The official, who’s investigating the attack, said the Taliban appear to have had accurate intelligence on the bases’s layout, which might have originated with Afghans who worked there, delivered supplies or flew in and out of the facility.
Crocker dismissed the view of some administration critics that insider attacks are a sign of growing anti-Americanism in Afghanistan, saying there are about “ten thousand interactions” between Americans and Afghans in Afghanistan every day, compared to a few dozen attacks this year on coalition troops.
Aside from killers who may have had personal grievances with their U.S. or NATO partners, the Taliban and other insurgents are the more likely culprits, he said.
Crocker, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon, also gave a public address yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research group in Washington, in his first major speech since he left his post in July.
Crocker said the 33,000 additional forces that Obama announced he was sending to Afghanistan in December 2009 “had a huge positive impact on security.” As the U.S. draws down its forces, he said, it’s vital that administration officials evaluate the security situation and the risks as policy decisions are made.
The current withdrawal of the last of the forces from the 2009 surge will leave about 68,000 U.S. troops by the end of this month, Panetta has said.
Crocker called the training and build-up of the Afghan forces “an amazing achievement” for such a short time.
The Afghan national security forces have grown to 344,108 personnel as of March, up from 284,952 a year earlier, according to U.S. Army Major Adam Wojack, a spokesman for ISAF in Kabul. The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are ahead of schedule to reach their projected combined force of 352,000 by October, he said.
Crocker, speaking to an audience of policy makers and analysts, had some criticism for the Obama administration, saying he arrived in Afghanistan last year “without any instructions” about “what the administration wanted” him to accomplish in his first months there.
Crocker urged the U.S. and the international community not to pull back from Afghanistan, saying continued engagement is essential to protect the newfound rights of women and minorities and what he called dramatic improvements in the quality of life.
Remaining committed to Afghanistan also is essential to U.S. national security, he said, pointing to U.S. disengagement after the Soviet Union withdrew its invading forces at the end of 1989, which he said helped fuel an Afghan civil war and the rise of the Taliban.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan since 2001 “is pretty cheap insurance,” given what the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cost, he said.
Crocker praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was installed to lead the U.S.-backed government after the fall of the Taliban, and has won two national elections since. Karzai, he said, has “incredible courage” and is “a committed Afghan nationalist” doing his best to promote national unity by giving voice and important positions to different ethnic groups.
He predicted that Karzai would not attempt to change the constitution to serve another term as president. Still, Karzai wants a successor with whom he can “coexist,” who will not seek to have him brought up on charges or who would allow Karzai’s life to be put at risk, Crocker said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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