An Afghan soldier who killed the highest-ranking U.S. military official in 13 years of war often dined alone and saw U.S. and allied forces as infidels, according to an officer at the base where the attack took place.
Rafiqullah, a 22-year-old who went by one name, was killed by Afghan forces after he opened fire with a light machine gun at military officials who were inspecting the training facility on Aug. 5, Colonel Abdul Wahab, chief of staff of Afghan Defense University, said in a phone interview. U.S. Major General Harold Greene, a two-star general, died in the attack.
“There is no doubt this could undermine the morale of Afghan soldiers,” said Wahab, who spoke to soldiers who witnessed the attack and said they knew Rafiqullah. “An insider attack is worse than Taliban attacks as our enemies are not really identified and recognizable. This could raise serious concerns within our higher and lower military ranks.”
The killing has prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to review security measures while renewing questions about his plans to withdraw almost all U.S. troops by the end of 2016. It also underscores the Afghan army’s challenge to stay unified as it takes the lead role in fighting Taliban insurgents who are seeking a return to power once the U.S. leaves.
“This really illustrates that Afghanistan is really not ready for the handover or the transition,” Sajjan Gohel, director of international security for the Asia Pacific Foundation in London and a visiting lecturer at NATO’s key training facility in Germany, said by phone. “You can train Afghan troops as much as you want and as well as you think you can. If they don’t have an idea of national identity or one they can all relate to there will always be problems.”
The attack also highlights challenges in the vetting of Afghan troops. Rafiqullah, an ethnic Pashtun, joined the Afghan military in 2011 in the eastern province of Paktia and has been stationed in Kabul the past two years, Wahab said. Rafiqullah’s friends told Afghan officials that he wasn’t very friendly and avoided social gatherings with fellow troops, Wahab said.
“This person was sometimes critical of foreign forces and considered them in the same way the Taliban did -- as infidels and occupiers,” Wahab said, citing information given by Rafiqullah’s friends. Wahab was unclear on the motivation for the attack and said an investigation is under way. Bloomberg News didn’t speak to anyone who claimed to know him directly.
The killer had conflicts within his unit, including an altercation earlier the day of the attack, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the circumstances are being investigated.
The soldier may have taken out his anger by spraying gunfire from inside barracks at visiting U.S. and allied officers who were inspecting a well nearby during what the Pentagon has described as a “routine visit” to the training base, the official said.
Among the 15 people wounded in the attack was a German brigadier general, according to the German Defense Ministry in Berlin.
The Taliban praised the killing in an e-mailed statement from spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed. He didn’t directly claim responsibility for Rafiqullah’s actions.
Six Afghan police officers were shot dead on Aug. 5 by a colleague after they were initially poisoned, according to Gulab Khan, the head of criminal investigations in southern Urozgan province. Taliban militants assisted the killings and fled the area, he said.
The number of U.S. and coalition soldiers killed in “insider attacks” has declined over the past three years. Four international troops were killed by Afghans this year before the latest attack, compared with 16 last year and a record 64 in 2012, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in reply to questions by e-mail.
To reduce such attacks, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said it has taken measures including counter-insurgency training, improving cultural awareness and helping Afghans recruit troops and report suspicious activity.
“This attack is not representative of the positive relationship developed between” Afghan and coalition troops, NATO said in an e-mail. “We remain committed to our mission in Afghanistan and will continue to work with our Afghan partners to ensure the safety and security of all coalition service members and civilians.”
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are the dominant ethnic group of the Taliban. They make up 46 percent of the soldiers in the army, according to a 2014 report by the Brookings Institution based in Washington.
Greene’s death underscores the continued risk to the 30,600 U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan, even as troops are withdrawn. As of yesterday, 2,339 Americans have died in the war, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“These incidents erode the trust between the foreign troops and their Afghan allies, so they can have a chilling effect on that partnership,” Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, said in an e-mail. “Fortunately the number of these green-on-blue attacks has diminished as the foreign troops withdraw, and they are likely to remain relatively uncommon.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a visit yesterday to the American base in Stuttgart, Germany, that Greene’s killing “is not going to affect our decision or resolve to continue moving forward on our enduring presence post-2014.”
Asked if the Obama administration would reconsider its plan to keep only a small security force based at the U.S. embassy in Kabul after 2016, Hagel said, “Those decisions have been made.”
Greene was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in combat since Lieutenant General Timothy Maude was killed in the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attack on the Pentagon.
Greene, of Schenectady, New York, was assigned to his post in Afghanistan after serving as the Army’s deputy for acquisition and systems management, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
A Pentagon biography says he was a native of upstate New York who graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1980 and held two master’s degrees in engineering and a Ph.D. in materials science. His decorations include the Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters.