The number of friendly-fire attacks on U.S. and allied forces by Afghan soldiers or private contractors has "dramatically increased" in recent years, but top government and defense officials said today a majority were not the work of dedicated insurgents.
From 2007 to 2011, there have been 42 cases in which uniformed Afghan soldiers or contractors have turned on their coalition counterparts, according to a U.S. Army report discussed in an open meeting of the House Armed Services Committee. This was the first time that defense officials had revealed the number.
The increased number of Afghan soldiers and police officers turning their guns on the troops who mentor them presents a challenge to the U.S. withdrawal strategy, which requires a loyal, dependable force to defend Afghanistan without the help of foreign forces. According to ABC News tally, there have been about as many incidents of men in Afghan uniforms firing on their mentors in the last year as there had been the previous four years -- and six such incidents in the last six weeks alone.
But rather than repeated insurgent infiltration of Afghan security forces, in approximately 60 percent of the cases, Army investigators determined the attacker was motivated by personal matters, said David Sedney, Deputy Assistant of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
The shooter may have had personal problems with individual coalition soldiers or could have been suffering from "combat stress," he said.
"Sometimes it's something we don't fully understand," Sedney admitted.
The hearing was called after an investigation into an attack at a forward operating base in Afghanistan called Frontenac in March 2011. In that case, an Afghan private contractor turned his rifle on the very American soldiers who had been teaching him how to use it, killing two and wounding four others. According to Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, an Army investigation found the contractor had already been fired by the contracting company for allegedly making threats against U.S. soldiers, but because the threats were "unsubstantiated," they were never noted and he was later re-hired.
After the attack, the Army went back and vetted all the Afghan contractors at the base and found several others warranted dismissal, Brig. Gen. Kenneth Dahl said. At the time, the vetting process was "vague and confusing," Dahl said in his testimony.
Now, coalition forces are working to find "effective ways to combat the insider threat to our service members" -- from improving the vetting process to developing better Afghan counter-intelligence capabilities, Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend said.
The proposed vetting process, parts of which are already in place, is a layered approach that includes the use of high-tech equipment like biometrics to track potential recruits to old fashioned methods such as seeking recommendations from local elders, Townsend said.
"Our bottom line upfront is the protection of service members," he said.
The hearing comes days after four French soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan soldier, prompting French President Nicolas Sarkozy to suspend its training programs and threaten to pull all troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
"The French army is not in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers," Sarkozy said after the shooting.
Tensions ran so high after two incidents of men in Afghan uniforms killing some of their Australian private contracting mentors late last year, the Australian company temporarily disarmed an entire unit of Afghan soldiers.
Still, all of the defense officials who testified today said that close cooperation between American and Afghan soldiers and contractors was "critical" to the American mission in Afghanistan -- and therefore worth the risks.
"I don't believe we can fully eliminate [the insider threats]," Gary Motsek, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Program Support, said, "but we must do everything in our power to minimize them."