The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan withdrew all international military personnel from Afghan government ministries in Kabul yesterday after two more Americans were killed on the fifth day of violent protests over the burning of the Koran at a coalition military base.
The two, a lieutenant colonel and a major, were both shot in the back of the head in the heavily guarded Interior Ministry, according to Western officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to disclose the information. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it was retaliation for the burning of the Muslim holy book.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s office said in a statement that “the United States remains committed to a partnership with the government and people of Afghanistan.” Still, the killings raise new doubts about the administration’s claim of progress in Afghanistan and the chances for accelerating withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the country.
Ahead of meetings scheduled this week in Washington with the Afghan defense and interior ministers and a NATO summit in May in Chicago, the violence also threatens to undermine the foundation of the administration’s Afghan policy -- training the Afghan National Army, National Police and some local forces to take over from coalition troops by the end of 2014.
The killings, along with a pending U.S. apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a mistaken air strike last November, also may fuel intensified Republican criticism of administration foreign policy. Republican Newt Gingrich already has called President Barack Obama’s apology for the Koran burning at Bagram air base a signal of American weakness.
Obama called Marine General John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces and the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, “to discuss the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and the tragic killing of two U.S. servicemembers,” according to a statement yesterday from the White House press secretary’s office.
“We are investigating the crime and will pursue all leads to find the person responsible for this attack,” Allen said in a statement Feb. 25. “For obvious force protection reasons, I have also taken immediate measures to recall all other” coalition personnel working in ministries in and around the Afghan capital, he said.
The U.S. condemns the killing of the American officers “in the strongest possible terms,” said George Little, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi offered his condolences to the families of the two officers and his apologies in a meeting with Allen today, Little said. Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak did the same during a telephone conversation with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Little said.
“Secretary Panetta appreciated the call and urged the Afghan government to take decisive action to protect coalition forces and curtail the violence in Afghanistan after a challenging week in the country,” Little said. “Minister Wardak said that President Karzai was assembling the religious leaders, parliamentarians, justices of the Supreme Court, and other senior Afghan officials to take urgent steps to do so.”
The killings in the Interior Ministry were the latest attack on foreign military forces in Afghanistan and civilians advising Afghan government personnel. Two U.S. soldiers were shot February 23 by a man in an Afghan army uniform, Ahmed Zia Abdulzai, the government spokesman in the eastern province of Nangarhar, said this week.
Afghan troops, police or security guards have killed about 70 troops or other personnel of the U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan in 46 attacks since 2007, according to U.S. Defense Department figures prepared for a Feb. 1 congressional hearing.
The violence probably won’t prevent this week’s scheduled talks with Afghan officials, said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research at The Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization. That the current crisis isn’t the first is all the more reason to plow ahead, he said in an e-mail.
“This war is a slog, but the Afghan army is getting better as are the police, despite what has happened,” O’Hanlon said. “Thankfully, we aren’t planning to stay forever and are already on a downward trajectory.”