U.S. military units have resorted to building hardened safe rooms, or what they call "Alamos," to protect themselves from potential attacks from the soldiers and police officers they are training, according to a report from Stars & Stripes.
Troops have built the safe rooms as U.S. and NATO commanders receive almost daily reports of supposed Afghan security forces turning their guns on their trainers. U.S. military leaders have urged troops to maintain partnerships, but also use caution.
"Well, you have to take precautions" although close partnership is still the strategy, said Alexander Vershbow, the deputy Secretary-General of NATO and a veteran U.S. diplomat. "But you have to take precautions that won't undermine success."
Vershbow seemed taken aback when asked Wednesday about small groups of U.S. troops building hardened safe rooms on forward bases controlled by Afghans to retreat to in case of trouble, as reported Wednesday by Stars & Stripes.
At Fort Irwin, Calif., last week, where troops were training for deployment to Afghanistan, Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Johnson of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul said the safe room technique was a last resort for isolated troops who might be in a precarious position.
"What can we do, say, if we have another Quran burning incident" such as happened earlier this year with the accidental burning of the Muslim holy book? "How would our small group protect themselves?" Johnson said.
The group would have "hardened areas that we could literally Alamo until reinforcements arrive," said Johnson, who was touring training areas in the states before returning to Afghanistan.
"It's something that we've always thought about, but with the increase in insider threats. ... I think what it's caused us to do is rehearse it," Johnson said, according to Stars and Stripes.
But Johnson, as well as Vershbow, stressed that improving the "cultural sensitivity" of U.S. troops to behavior that might be offensive to the Afghans was a key to the success of the transition of security responsibilities from the U.S.-led coalition to the Afghan forces.
"The bottom line is that maintaining a collaborative relationship is the formula that has worked," Vershbow said.
At least 45 coalition troops have been killed this year by individuals in Afghan police or army uniforms and the insider attacks "are of tremendous concern to everybody at NATO," Vershbow said.
"We have to "train our own troops to be more sensitive," he said. "In the broader scheme of things, our strategy is working."
Nearly a third of the U.S. troops killed this month in Afghanistan – 12 of 38 – have been victims of insider attacks. August has also been the worst month of the year for the coalition with a total of 48 troops killed thus far compared to 46 in July -- the previous highest monthly total for 2012.
Despite the spike in insider attacks, both President Obama and Marine Gen. John Allen, the ISAF commander, last week stressed that closer cooperation with the Afghan security forces was vital to a successful transition that would allow the allies to withdraw all combat forces in 2014.
In a video briefing to the Pentagon Aug. 23, Allen said the current focus was on green-on-blue attacks.
"But the real story here is green and green. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police across this nation work and fight side by side with coalition troops to defeat our common enemies and protect the civilian population," Allen said.
Obama emphasized that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces must keep close contact, but those relationships must not put troops in vulnerable positions.
"And you know, 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. "We've got to make sure that we're on top of this."
The more frequent insider attacks have posed a challenging dilemma for troops on the ground and should focus the White House and the Pentagon on a faster withdrawal from a war that the polls show Americans no longer support, said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of Defense.
"The troops are worried now about trying to protect themselves from the people they're trying to protect," Korb said. "That's an indication that we've reached the point of diminishing returns" in Afghanistan.