By Mike Mount
A spate of violent attacks in Afghanistan spurred on by an anti-Muslim video made in the Unites States, as well as continued attacks on coalition forces by their Afghan partners, is putting a tumultuous start on the first step of the U.S. handover of authority to the Afghan government.
The attacks come at a sensitive time as the United States removes the last of the more than 30,000 surge troops the Obama administration rushed in to quash an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan in 2010.
Those remaining troops are scheduled to be out of the country by the end of this month, bringing the U.S. troop level down to about 68,000 in addition to other NATO allies and Afghan forces.
But as that schedule rolls on, U.S. troops have been ordered to halt some joint operations with Afghan security forces after the attacks by their local allies and amidst the fallout from the controversial anti-Islam video.
"In response to an increased threat situation as a result of the 'Innocence of Muslims' video, plus the recent insider attacks, ISAF forces are increasing their vigilance and carefully reviewing all activities and interactions with the local population," Maj. Lori Hodge, a spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said Tuesday.
The attacks included a brazen assault on a coalition base in southern Afghanistan on Friday that killed two US troops and destroyed six coalition fighter jets as well as a suicide attack carried out in Kabul on Tuesday by an insurgent group that killed 12 people, eight of whom were foreigners. An extremist group that claimed responsibility for the latter attack said it was in response to the film.
The other factor behind the partial joint operations suspension is the number of insider attacks in the country.
More than 50 coalition troops were killed between January and mid-August in instances where uniformed Afghans turned their guns on allied troops.
"We are absolutely resolute in our commitment to the objectives of our campaign, but ... on the path to achieving those objectives we will make adjustments as we go," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Tuesday while traveling in the Middle East.
But while some say the surge was a boon to security - "The surge ordered by President Obama...had a huge positive impact on security," the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said Monday during a speech - others say the end of the surge may have been a bit short-sighted on its departure timeline.
"I think the violence is going to escalate as the numbers (of surge troops) dwindle," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy analysis organization. "With the surge troops there the U.S. was in a position to go on the offensive," he said.
When President Barack Obama finally announced his decision to add more troops in Afghanistan in December of 2009, his goal was to take back what the Taliban had seized during the years when the United States was more focused on its war in Iraq.
The surge helped tilt the balance in favor of the U.S. and its allies, but the current threat of insider attacks remains a bit of a mystery as to what is fueling it, according to Nawaz.
"We are now faced with another emerging threat, which is not the Taliban, but the violence from the Afghan troops the coalition trained," Nawaz said in a phone interview with CNN.
The threat reached such a point that the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen ordered additional reviews of security procedures and limited some joint operations with Afghan security forces.
The insider attacks are a puzzle for the Defense Department, which has yet to get a solid answer on what is causing them. While military analysts and U.S. commanders have not drawn any correlations, insider attacks did not really exist prior to the surge troops arriving.
"It maybe frustration on the part of the troops that are leaving; they are pushing the Afghans to do things (for) which they are not ready yet," Nawaz said adding that he has only been able to get anecdotal information from the military instead of any detailed reports or analysis.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he believes at least some of the attacks are part of the Taliban, but does not see it as a successful campaign by the insurgents, but rather a desperate attempt to stay relevant.
"We think it is kind of a last gasp effort to be able to not only target our forces, but to try to create chaos, because they've been unable ... to regain any of the territory that they have lost...we are concerned about the increase in these attacks," Panetta said Monday while traveling in Asia.
"What we need to do is look at these places and understand why there is a greater propensity, and to arm ourselves against it and to continue to encourage our Afghan partners at every level of their leadership to be engaged with us in this," Dempsey said of the insider attacks.
"I expect that two weeks from now, (Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan) will be looking at the conditions as he confronts them and making other assessments," Dempsey said of Allen's assessment of restarting the halted Afghan training operations.