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NATO Suspends Operations With Afghan Soldiers


At the heart of NATO's strategy to turn over security to Afghanistan, is the joint patrol: Afghan and international troops training and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Now faced with a rash of insider attacks - Afghans in uniform turning their guns on international troops - NATO is suspending most of those joint operations.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 50 NATO troops have died at the hands of Afghan security forces, or people posing as them. Added to the threat this week is the rising tension from a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad. For the latest, we go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in Kabul. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: What exactly does this mean, in terms of how U.S. and other NATO forces will interact with Afghan security forces?

NELSON: Well, considering that 80 percent of the missions here - or the operations here are joint operations, this has a huge impact. What the directive from Lt. Gen. General James Terry - he's the head of the NATO-led coalition's joint command here - what he's basically ordered is that the only cooperation that go on occur at the battalion levels. You're talking about meetings of high-level officers perhaps at a secure base, rather than being out in the field. I mean, right now, you have troops who not only train Afghan forces, but they go out with them on joint patrols; they assist them if they're under attack. Those sorts of things go away, and it creates a huge problem for the next 27 months, while the NATO-led coalition is still here. This directive could last several days - or much longer than that. It's unclear yet.

MONTAGNE: And does mean, effectively, that international forces will be in their bases, rather than out in the field with Afghan forces?

NELSON: That seems to be the case. I mean, again, there may be some instances where the regional commanders will approve something different. But it is very much going to be a restricted movement-type thing. And this, of course, comes in addition to a lot of other steps that have been going on, including requiring the troops to carry loaded weapons at all times; having troops monitoring joint meetings - so keeping an eye on the Afghans, if you will, so that they can attack - or hopefully, prevent an attack.

So yeah, it's very restrictive. And it seems to put a damper on plans for turning over the security responsibilities to Afghan forces, as these months roll on to the end of the NATO-led coalition's mission - which, as you mentioned, is the end of 2014.

MONTAGNE: Now, in Beijing today, the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, said this was not a sign that the insurgency is getting stronger. What's the view where you are?

NELSON: Well, certainly, on the ground here, the coalition troops don't feel - or the coalition troop commanders, I should say, don't feel this is something that's being done by the Taliban. They blame about a quarter of these cases, of these attacks, on Taliban infiltration. But there seems to be something else going on here; with the troops not just understanding each other. I mean, part of it is because they're trying to grow the forces so quickly. We're talking about 350,000 Afghan troops - this is both soldiers and police, at this point - who are, you know, supposed to be working with the coalition in some way. So the fact that the risk has gone up is - I guess - perhaps in some ways, expected. But having said that, I mean, they are trying to figure out a way to curb this because it just can't go on.

MONTAGNE: And separately, there was a suicide bombing in Kabul this morning, that killed at least eight foreigners. It was aimed at foreigners, apparently. Tell us about that.

NELSON: From what we've been able to piece together, there was a caravan of three minivans, basically, moving towards Kabul airport. They were using a back road. So they were moving on that road when apparently - at least, according to the group claiming responsibility - says they sent a woman suicide bomber to basically intercept this caravan.

It struck the first bus. And inside the first bus, there was an Afghan driver, an Afghan government official and some foreigners, eight from South Africa. One of them is from Kyrgyzstan. But the details are still somewhat shady because the bodies were not retrieved for many, many hours. They were left laying out on the street, with French troops securing them - or helping secure them. But you know, the Afghans didn't want to touch the scene, if you will, until somebody with some responsibility came and took the bodies away. So it's been a very chaotic morning; still a lot of questions about this case.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Kabul. Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.