KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO's decision to restrict operations with small Afghan forces to mitigate the threat of insider attacks means fewer boots on patrols and a shift in how the U.S.-led coalition will fight the war in Afghanistan.
It's unclear whether the coalition's exit strategy can succeed with less partnering with Afghan policemen and soldiers, who are slated to take over for foreign combat troops by the end of 2014, just 27 months from now. What is clear is that the mantra that Afghans and coalition forces are fighting the Taliban "shoulder to shoulder" is looking more and more like they're standing at arm's length.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military stopped training about 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police, a controversial network of village-defense units. U.S. commanders have assigned some troops to be "guardian angels" who watch over their comrades in interactions with Afghan forces and even as they sleep. U.S. officials also recently ordered American troops to carry loaded weapons at all times in Afghanistan, even when they are on their bases.
Until now, coalition troops routinely conducted operations such as patrolling or manning outposts with small units of their Afghan counterparts. Under the new rules issued on Sunday, such operations with small-sized units are considered no longer routine and require the approval of the regional commander.
NATO's decision reflected escalating worries about the insider attacks, coupled with the widespread tensions over an anti-Islam video that has prompted protests around the world, including Afghanistan.
Early Tuesday, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a minibus carrying foreign aviation workers to the airport in the Afghan capital, killing at least 12 people including nine foreigners – eight South Africans, a Kyrgyzstani and three Afghans.
Haroon Zarghoon, a spokesman for the Islamist militant group Hizb-i-Islami, claimed responsibility, saying it was carried out by a 22-year-old woman named Fatima and was meant to avenge the anti-Islam film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.
But the underlying reason for the new directive that curbs contact between Afghan and international forces is the spike in insider attacks.
So far this year, 51 international service members have died at the hands of Afghan forces or militants wearing their uniforms. That is more than 18 percent of the 279 international troops who have been killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued that the attacks do not mean the Taliban are getting stronger. "I think what it indicates is that they are resorting to efforts that try to strike at our forces, try to create chaos but do not in any way result in their regaining territory that has been lost," he told reporters during a press conference in Beijing.
Still, critics pointed out that insider attacks – which have continued despite efforts to vet all 352,000 members of Afghanistan's army and police forces – were undermining the international mission in Afghanistan.
In London, lawmakers criticized the new restrictions on partnered operations as potentially undermining the strategy of training local forces to provide security once U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
"It does appear to be a really significant change in the relationship between (coalition) and Afghan forces," said opposition Labour Party lawmaker Jim Murphy.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told lawmakers that troops would "return to normal operations" as soon as the tension eased.
The coalition also downplayed the impact of the directive, saying international forces had not stopped partnering and advising Afghan forces. Coalition officials said the new restrictions were made at the recommendation of – and in conjunction with _key Afghan leaders.
Companies remain partnered with Afghan units, but have changed the way they conduct their daily partnering operations with units smaller than a battalion, according to the coalition.
Battalions – or kandaks as they are called in Afghanistan – differ in size, but typically have about 300 to 500 service members. In Afghanistan, however, most of the fighting occurs with tens not hundreds of troops.
"We see this as temporary," said Col. Thomas Collins, the coalition's spokesman. "If you went out to the battlefield today, you would see partnered operations at the company and platoon level just as we've had in the past," he said. "Only now, we require the regional commander to approve operations below the battalion level."
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said plans for a gradual transition to Afghan responsibility for security by the end of 2014 would continue despite the new restrictions, which he described as "prudent and temporary."
The Afghan Ministry of Defense also downplayed the directive.
"For a long time, small units of Afghan forces have carried out independent operations and patrols," said ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi. "This is for units smaller than the kandak level and we have already been doing that."
Noor ul-Haq Holomi, a former general in the Afghan army, disagreed, saying the Afghan security forces need more training and equipment.
"This kind of decision will have a negative impact on the security situation, on the morale of the Afghan security forces and will benefit the enemy and armed opposition groups," he said. "So far, Afghan security forces are not able to stand on their feet. Is doing this directive under the current poor security situation to the benefit of the international community? Of course not."
Other military analysts describe the new order as a fundamental shift in the fight.
"The insider attacks are a hammer blow to NATO's strategy of handing over security to reliable Afghan security forces in 2014," said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
"The mission of training and equipping Afghan forces who might turn their guns against us has become absurd. Commanders assert that the policy remains the same – that they will continue to fight the Taliban alongside their supposed Afghan allies – but in reality that policy is being torn to shreds by these insider attacks."
Mark Moyar, author of a counterinsurgency book that is used in training Afghan forces, said the directive "clearly represents a major change in the coalition strategy in Afghanistan."
He said some within the U.S. military argue that partnering for too long makes Afghans dependent on international troops while others say long-term mentoring is needed for them to become self-sufficient, or they'll be easy prey for the resilient insurgents.
"There has been, and remains, much uncertainty about how many Afghan forces can conduct tactical operations independently," he said. "This shift will eliminate much of that uncertainty. But some uncertainty will remain, because the Americans will know much less about Afghan security force activities when they do not go outside the wire with them."
He wonders what the order means for the timing of future U.S. troop withdrawals.
The U.S. will complete its drawdown of 33,000 American troops that President Barack Obama ordered out of Afghanistan by Sept. 30, leaving 68,000 U.S. service members in the country.
"The reduction in U.S. participation could make it easier to accelerate troop withdrawals, but if the security situation deteriorates sharply, it could have the opposite effect," Moyar said.
In other violence reported on Tuesday, 11 Afghan soldiers were killed and eight others were wounded in three roadside bombings across the country. The defense ministry said five died in Herat province in the west; five died in Logar province in the east; and one was killed in Kandahar province in the south. In Helmand province, one Afghan soldier and a civilian were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his car laden with explosives at a checkpoint in Gereskh district, the Afghan army said.
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn, Heidi Vogt, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.