WASHINGTON — It's too early to tell if training or other changes must be made in light of an insider attack in Afghanistan that killed one American soldier and wounded two others, because there's some uncertainty about whether the assailant was a disgruntled Afghan soldier or an insurgent infiltrator, the Army's top officer says.
Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, said Friday that the three soldiers who were shot last weekend were protecting members of the new U.S. advisory brigade that deployed to Afghanistan for the first time just five months ago. He said the Army is moving ahead with plans to create more of the training brigades and use them primarily in Afghanistan, although other locations could be considered in the future.
According to officials, the attacker fired on the soldiers at the airfield on the base at Tarin Kowt, in southern Uruzgan Province, a hotbed of Taliban activity. He was taken into custody on the day of the attack, July 7.
It was the first death involving the advisory brigade, and the first insider attack in about a year. Cpl. Joseph Maciel of South Gate, California, was shot by small arms fire and killed. The other two soldiers are in stable condition.
In a message to the media last Saturday, Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi said the shooting was carried out by a member of the Afghan security forces who acted alone, but the militant group "appreciated" his attack.
The military, said Milley, is still trying to determine if the shooter was from the Taliban or another insurgency or just an angry Afghan soldier. Either way, he said, it doesn't change the mission of the new advisory teams, working closely with their Afghan partners. Those jobs carry risk.
"Those guys are out there, and they're in exposed positons and it is a high-risk situation," Milley said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press. "So casualties are going to occur."
That's a reminder of the challenges facing U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the 17th year of America's military involvement there. The Trump administration is trying to boost the capabilities of Afghan security forces and increase military pressure on the Taliban in the hope of forcing them to negotiate a peace.
During a surge in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan under the Obama administration, when American forces had a greater combat role, there were dozens of so-called insider attacks.
Despite additional precautionary steps since then, the threat has continued. Last June, there were two insider attacks — in which a soldier in an Afghan uniform turns his weapon on U.S. or other coalition troops — within a two-week period, killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding another seven.
Speaking to reporters last month, Col. Scott Jackson, commander of the new Security Force Assistance Brigade, acknowledged the possible threat of a friendly fire attack.
"I will tell you honestly, we have had our Afghan partners come to us with intelligence that pre-empted potential attacks, and they have been proactively taking care of their own problems," Jackson said during a June 13 briefing.
Jackson said that when the assistance brigade arrived in Afghanistan, they began vetting the higher-level Afghan forces and steadily worked their way down to the smaller units. That vetting, said Jackson, goes on continually as soldiers rotate in and out of the units, and has not delayed operations.
Just six months ago, Jackson was at Fort Benning, Georgia, pulling together the new training brigade, working to make real the vision of senior Army leaders.
The idea was formed early last year, as officials recognized the need for permanent military training teams that could be deployed worldwide to help local forces learn how to fight better. The plan was a reflection of the new reality of America at war: Army soldiers advising and building indigenous security forces, not doing the fighting for them on foreign soil.
Under the plan, the Army will build six brigades over the next several years. And Milley said Friday that the second brigade is currently doing pre-mission training to replace Jackson's unit when it's time for them to come home.