Report on shooting spree finds deep mistrust between U.S., Afghan forces

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 17, 2012 

WASHINGTON — An Air Force investigation into a shooting spree by an Afghan colonel that left nine U.S. military trainers dead last year found high levels of hostility between Afghan and American forces and major Afghan support for the shooter.

The report released Tuesday by the Pentagon revealed that the Afghan colonel — who methodically opened fire in a conference room at a highly secured Afghan air base in April — told friends that he had returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan "to kill Americans."

Col. Ahmed Gul shot all but one of the Americans in the head, and all at least twice, in what remains the war's deadliest shooting incident targeting Americans. Far from making him a pariah, more than 1,500 Afghans attended Gul's funeral, Air Force investigators reported.

The 436-page report by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said there was no evidence that Gul, who killed himself after the incident with two self-inflicted shots to the torso, was a member of the Taliban. At the time, a Taliban spokesman took credit for the killings.

But investigators — who interviewed witnesses, other U.S. trainers and Afghan officers and airmen — found that the relationship between Afghan troops and their American mentors is often filled with hostility bordering on hatred. These tensions continue even after a decade in which the U.S.-led NATO coalition has closely trained Afghan forces that it describes as its allies.

Afghan soldiers, at best, tolerated the U.S. troops who were training them to build their own air force, one coalition member told investigators. U.S. troops struggled to gain the trust of their Afghan counterparts and were distrustful of them. Some U.S. troops flashed loaded weapons at Afghans as a show of force, the report said.

One U.S. service member at the scene, in his statement about the shooting, said that his initial reaction was simply: "I knew it."

The report also found that that one of the reasons Gul fired so many shots was that he faced little retaliation. Only one of those killed, Capt. Nathan J. Nylander, 35, of Hockley, Texas, removed his service weapon from the holster and shot back, nearly emptying his gun, the report found. At least one other airman also fired back.

The shootings occurred at the start of a routine meeting held at the base at Kabul's international airport between Afghans and their American trainers. Gul walked up to the back of Maj. David L. Brodeur, 34, of Auburn, Mass., and wordlessly shot him in the head before opening fire on others. Eight U.S. airmen and one American civilian were killed.

Most of those in the room ran away from the scene, the report found. Outside the room, Gul wrote, "God is one" and "God is in your name" in Dari with blood. Gul then fatally shot himself twice in the chest.

The Americans were training their Afghan counterparts on how to use computer systems to better plan out flight missions. One witness said that the training had made only a little progress at the time of the shooting.

Cases of so-called green-on-blue shootings — in which an Afghan attacks international troops — have grown more frequent in recent months. In May, a report commissioned by the U.S.-led coalition and obtained by McClatchy found that such attacks had made up 6 percent of Western deaths in Afghanistan in the previous two years and 30 percent of all field-grade officer deaths.

In addition to the nine Americans killed, four Afghans were wounded.

All of the American victims but the civilian, retired Army Lt. Col. James McLaughlin Jr., 55, of Santa Rosa, Calif., were shot in the head. Maj. Philip D. Ambard, 44, of Edmonds, Wash., was shot six times, the report said.

What remains unclear is whether Gul had ties to or orders from the Taliban to carry out the shooting spree. The Taliban has frequently threatened to attack coalition forces using sympathizers within the Afghan security forces. But the report concluded that while Gul had mental and financial problems, there was no information directly implicating him in insurgent activity.

The report also found that Gul planned the attack. Two days prior, he asked for and received weapons training from his American trainers.

Witnesses offered varied descriptions of Gul. Most agreed he was hot-tempered, but one service member described him as a "breath of fresh air" who "was trusted" by the Americans. Another said that Gul hated the U.S. presence and limited his interactions with U.S. troops.

Also unclear was his level of religious devotion. Although names are redacted, what appears to be an Afghan associate of Gul's told investigators that when Gul began his military career 20 years ago as a pilot, he "drank alcohol, partied and was not a religious person."

The Afghan associate said Gul became more religious beginning around 1995 and came to support the Taliban, eventually traveling to Pakistan, where he became radicalized. He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 "to kill Americans," the associate said.

Another associate said Gul had only been radicalized in the previous 10 months. Another witness said that Gul watched pornography, although he objected to other Afghans doing so.

Feelings of mutual distrust between Afghans and Americans pepper the report. One of Gul's victims, Master Sgt. Tara R. Brown, 33, of Deltona, Fla., told one witness interviewed by investigators that, before the shooting, Afghan soldiers would harass her when she walked to the gym and that she did not feel safe on the base.

"She said she felt threatened enough to put a magazine in her 9 mm (pistol) and show it to the Afghan soldiers," the witness said.

Brown was in the conference room when Gul opened fire. When she pleaded for her life, Gul shot her; she died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

It was unclear what changes the Air Force would make in light of its findings, but a statement said it would include better weapons training for its service members.

Lt. Col. Frank D. Bryant, 37, of Knoxville, Tenn.; Maj. Raymond G. Estelle II, 40, of New Haven, Conn.; Maj. Jeffrey O. Ausborn, 41, of Gadsden, Ala., and Maj. Charles A. Ransom, 31, of Midlothian, Va., were also killed.

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