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In spite of the fact that nearly one-third of the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this month have been shot to death by Afghan "insiders," President Obama on Monday said that his strategy for withdrawal calls for even closer partnership with local security forces.
"Part of what's taking place is we are transitioning to Afghan security," Obama said of the 10 U.S. troops killed in the past two weeks by supposed Afghan allies often called "green-on-blue" or "insider" attacks.
"For us to train them effectively, we are in much closer contact -- our troops are in much closer contact with Afghan troops on an ongoing basis," Obama said at an impromptu White House news conference. "Part of what we've got to do is to make sure that this model works but it doesn't make our guys more vulnerable."
Obama said he would be speaking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reinforce the message Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave to Karzai over the weekend that the Afghans must get better at vetting the recruits for the Afghan National Security Forces.
Obama also said he had been in close contact with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who arrived at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul on Sunday night and later went into meetings on the insider attacks with Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces.
Dempsey said he sensed that the Afghan leadership was ready to face up to the insider attack threat and take action.
"For the first time, I found that my Afghan counterparts are as concerned about the insider attacks as we are," Dempsey said, according to Agence France Presse. "In the past, it's been us pushing on them to make sure that they do more."
Of the 31 U.S. troops killed in combat this month, 10 have been victims of insider attacks, including five from the Special Forces. The number of Americans killed by Afghans they train has thus far surpassed the six killed in August by improvised explosive devices, considered the biggest threat to allied troops.
Pentagon officials also stressed that the growing threat from insider attacks would not alter the U.S. plan to partner closely with the Afghan police and army to ease the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces in 2014.
"We are not shying away from engaging with our Afghan partners," said George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman. He insisted that "troop morale is high" despite the insider attacks, and said that U.S. troops "are working more closely than ever" with Afghan partners.
A Pentagon military official cited the case of the two Army Special Forces troops who were killed on Aug. 17 by an Afghan police recruit in western Farah province.
"The very next day those American soldiers [in the Special Forces unit] were back at work with their Afghan partners," the military official said. "The rest of that team continued on with their mission."
But the mission will be continuing with fewer troops. The last units of the 33,000 U.S. "surge" troops that went into Afghanistan in 2010 are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of September, bringing overall U.S. troops levels to 68,000.
U.S. allies are also anxious to leave. On Monday, Prime Minister John Key announced that the 145 New Zealand troops who have been operating in central Bamiyan province would be withdrawn early. The "Kiwis" will now leave by April 2013 rather than in the fall of 2013 as originally planned.
France is withdrawing all of its 2,000 combat forces by the end of this year, leaving behind 1,500 support troops who will come out in 2013.