National Security

Killing of U.S. major general in Afghanistan revives worries about safety of trainers

Afghan and U.S. soldiers on guard in 2012. (Jon Stephenson/MCT)
Afghan and U.S. soldiers on guard in 2012. (Jon Stephenson/MCT) MCT

An American major general was fatally gunned down by an Afghan soldier Tuesday at a Kabul military academy, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. officer killed in combat overseas since the Vietnam War and renewing fears about the ability of U.S. troops to work safely alongside their Afghan counterparts.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno identified the officer as Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, a 34-year Army veteran whose widow is a retired Army colonel.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene’s family, and the families of our soldiers who were injured today in the tragic events that took place in Afghanistan,” Odierno said. “These soldiers were professionals, committed to the mission.”

Greene, 55, a native of upstate New York, was serving as deputy commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, the international coalition responsible for training the Afghan army.

His death shocked the usually unflappable military community after more than a decade of war. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said he had seen “no indication that there is a degradation of trust” between American and Afghan troops in light of the attack.

But the shooting death of such a high-ranking officer by a member of a supposedly friendly force revived fears that American advisers will face danger not just from the enemy as they carry out their training mission in Afghanistan once U.S. combat forces complete their withdrawal at the end of the year. As many as 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after that withdrawal.

Greene, who held a doctorate in materials science from the University of Southern California, arrived in Afghanistan in January for his first combat tour after a career working as an engineering support officer. He was meeting with commanders from several other allied countries at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul, the Afghan capital, when gunfire erupted around 12:30 p.m. local time.

Kirby described it as a “routine site visit,” though the German military, in a statement released in Berlin, described the gathering as a meeting of key military leaders. A German brigadier general was wounded in the shooting but was expected to survive, the German statement said.

The shooter, a vetted two-year member of the Afghan army, reportedly used a PKM machine gun, a staple of the Russian army, to spray the gathering with bullets. In addition to Greene and the German general, 13 NATO soldiers, some of them Americans, were wounded, according to both German and U.S. military officials.

The shooter, who was in uniform, was killed by return fire, but Kirby would not say by whom. The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that Afghan soldiers killed the attacker.

Kirby also said he did not know whether the general was targeted, either personally or because he was an American commander.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Taliban praised the attacker, albeit while incorrectly stating that an Italian soldier had been killed. In its statement, the Taliban said the victims were “trying to evaluate the effectiveness of their puppets’ military training when the attack happened.”

Kirby said a joint NATO-Afghan investigation was underway and refused to give any details about the circumstances of the attack, including why the coalition officers had gathered at the training center. A defense official told McClatchy that the commanders were reviewing part of the site outdoors when the attack occurred. In London, the British Defense Ministry said it also was conducting an investigation since the British oversaw the training school and the program where the shooting took place.

Afghanistan commander Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford briefed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Kirby said.

It was not known what security precautions were in place when the shooting took place. Under tough rules imposed to head off so-called green-on-blue attacks, American troops in Afghanistan are to exercise extreme caution when dealing with their Afghan counterparts, including the posting of so-called “guardian angels” _ armed security _ to supervise any gathering that includes Afghan troops.

Green-on-blue attacks have been a major problem of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Since January 2008, there have been 87 such incidents, some by Taliban fighters who have infiltrated the Afghan security forces, others by disgruntled members of the army or police. But such incidents have been rare in recent months as U.S. troops ended participation in combat missions and remained on bases where strict security rules were the norm for meetings with Afghans.

According to the Pentagon, the last green-on-blue incident happened in February, when two special forces members were killed by an Afghan in Kapisa in eastern Afghanistan.

That such attacks continue, however, presents a policy dilemma for the Obama administration, said Sean Kay, who teaches politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and whose book, “America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism,” was just published.

“There is little hope for long-term stability in Afghanistan after American troops depart if the mission of training Afghan forces cannot be achieved successfully,” he said.

The subject of green-on-blue shootings was a major topic during the 2012 hearing to confirm Dunford’s nomination as Afghanistan commander. Dunford ordered new procedures for meeting with Afghans in the realization that training Afghans was the keystone of the U.S. exit strategy and that there would be no substitute for working closely alongside Afghan soldiers.

There are currently 30,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 17,000 from other nations. The shooter was among the 335,000 Afghan national security forces.

Matthew Schofield in Berlin contributed to this report.