KABUL, Afghanistan – Across Afghanistan, at combat outposts in the wind-scoured desert and the jagged mountains, it was daily routine: A small group of Afghan police or soldiers and Western ground troops would gather their gear and set out together on a foot patrol or a village visit.
In its most sweeping response yet to “insider” shootings that have seen 51 Western troops killed this year by Afghans in uniform, the NATO force is halting, at least temporarily, joint patrols and other small-unit ground operations by Afghan and foreign troops unless specifically approved by a high-ranking regional commander, military officials said Tuesday.
The move calls into question what has been the centerpiece of the Western exit strategy: that foreign forces would train Afghan counterparts by working closely with them in the field, with the aim of readying the Afghan police and army to take the lead in fighting the Taliban by 2014.
Western officials sought to portray the move as a relatively minor adjustment to the relationship with Afghan allies. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force “remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our (Afghan) counterparts,” it said in a statement.
But three junior NATO field officers in different parts of Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said the order would dramatically alter the tenor and tempo of activity. Before the directive, Western officials had touted the fact that up to 80 percent of missions were partnered operations involving Western and Afghan troops. Already, there is concern that without American and other Western troops to bolster them in ground operations, some Afghan units will balk at setting out alone.
Officials said the decision was prompted not only by insider shootings, which have accounted this year for about 15 percent of the NATO force’s fatalities and seriously eroded trust between Afghans and Westerners, but also by the trailer of the crude anti-Islam film that has triggered furious anti-American protests across the Muslim world.