U.S. Marines are engulfed in a storm of dust and debris as a helicopter lands to transport them from their operating base in southern Afghanistan. (image credit David Furst/AFP/Getty)
Washington, DC (written by Jim Michaels/USA Today) -- The coalition command in Afghanistan says that a suspension in some joint operations between U.S. and Afghan forces is temporary and will not hurt affect the campaign to train and build Afghan security forces.
"There's no backing off from that at all," said Army Col. Tom Collins, a military spokesman in Afghanistan.
The command ordered a pause in some operations following a recent spike in insider attacks and amid concerns over violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan coming from protesters angry over an anti-Islam video produced in the United States.
Fifty-one coalition troops have been killed this year by Afghan security forces or people posing as Afghan troops in so-called insider attacks, up from 35 such deaths last year.
The new order will reduce the exposure of coalition forces to the risk of insider attacks at a time of mounting tensions, the coalition command said. Collins said the coalition will return to full operations as soon as possible.
The orders reflect the command's efforts to reduce the risk to U.S. forces without undermining the bonds between coalition and Afghan forces at a time when the strategy depends on that trust, according to the Pentagon.
"We're going to take all the steps necessary to try to protect our forces in this situation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a trip through Asia. "But, having said that, we are also going to continue to proceed with the basic plan that we have put in place for transition in Afghanistan."
Under the orders, joint U.S.-Afghan operations below the battalion level will for now require approval from top-level commanders. Coalition trainers who are embedded with Afghan military staff at the higher level will not be affected by the order.
But Afghan and U.S. troops frequently conduct joint operations at much lower levels, including squads and platoons. Much of the Afghanistan war is conducted by these small units.
"We're not at a standstill by any sense of the word," said Collins, who added that the coalition will return to full operations as soon as possible.
In the past, coalition officials have said the insider attacks are typically the result of isolated circumstances and not a Taliban strategy to infiltrate the Afghan military. About 25% of the insider attacks are linked to the Taliban, according to the coalition. The rest are attributed to personal grievances, cultural misunderstandings and other motives.
Still, the Taliban stands to benefit from the attacks because they risk undermining trust between coalition and Afghan forces at a time when the bonds are critical, Afghanistan analysts say.
"The Taliban objective is to put a wall or barrier" between Afghanistan's security forces and the coalition, said Seth Jones, a political scientist at RAND Corp., a think tank.
Jones said he has not seen any evidence to suggest that joint operations have been dramatically reduced as a result of the order or that the order has had an impact on relations between Afghan and coalition forces.
The increase in insider attacks comes as the U.S. is reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan and working to build the size and effectiveness of the Afghan army and police. The coalition said it is on track to reach a level of 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police by October.
"We will not lose sight of the fundamental mission here, which is to continue to proceed to assure a peaceful transition to Afghan security and governance," Panetta said. "We're going to stick to that mission."