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KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan soldier turned his weapon on a vehicle he believed was driven by NATO soldiers on a shared base in the south, slightly wounding a foreign civilian worker, officials said Monday. It was the latest in a string of insider attacks by Afghan forces against their international allies.
The attacks are threatening to undermine a partnership that is key to the handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government and therefore to the entire program for the drawdown of international troops. NATO said it was reviewing protocols for protecting its troops in the wake of the current attack spike.
The Sunday evening shooting in Helmand province came the same day an Afghan police officer shot and killed four American service members in Zabul, also in the south. That followed on a shooting Saturday in which a man wearing the uniform of a government-back militia group killed two British soldiers in Helmand.
The soldier turned his weapon on a vehicle that was driving inside Camp Garmser, a shared base in Helmand, said NATO forces spokesman Maj. Adam Wojack. Another Afghan soldier disarmed the attacker and took him into custody. The assailant told interrogators he had thought he was targeting troops, Wojack said.
Wojack declined to give the nationality of the injured civilian. He said the wounds were minor.
The insider assaults drew unusually strong comment Sunday from the U.S. military's top officer, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who called the problem of rogue Afghan soldiers and police turning their guns on allied troops "a very serious threat" to the war effort. Dempsey vowed that something has to change in order to address the escalating problem, and he suggested that the Afghans need to take the matter as seriously as the Americans do.
But U.S. and NATO officials appeared to be stepping back from that assessment on Monday. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a visit to Tokyo that the insider attacks are a "last gasp" of a Taliban insurgency that has not been able to regain lost ground. And the top spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, German Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, told reporters in Kabul that they felt the Afghans were taking appropriate measures to try to prevent attacks.
"The Afghans started, according to their own reports, a re-vetting of their own soldiers and policemen and have already relieved a couple of hundred from active duty," Katz said. He also noted that the Afghan forces have increased training about cultural differences between the two forces.
Katz said the quick reaction of Afghan forces to the attack at Camp Garmser showed that they were taking such attacks seriously. "It was members of the Afghan national army who reacted instantly and detained that shooter," Katz said.
A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the Afghan government is making every effort to stop the attacks, noting that Karzai has made it a priority in meetings.
"The president himself has taken this issue very seriously," spokesman Aimal Faizi said.
"This is a joint responsibility of the Afghan government and our international partners and we are hoping that they will not affect the relations between Afghanistan and its international partners," he added.
So far this year, there have been 37 attacks by Afghan allies or those who have infiltrated their ranks, killing 51 international service members. At least 12 such attacks came in August alone, leaving 15 dead.
The spike in insider attacks is souring the relationship between NATO troops and the Afghan forces that they are training and fighting alongside. But military and defense leaders have insisted that these attacks are not hampering the war effort, and that it will not impact the plans to have combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Even so, increasingly stringent measures are being taken. A spokesman for the international military alliance said Monday that Gen. Allen has directed all operational commanders to review their protocols for protecting their own soldiers and mission operations given the latest spike in insider attacks and the current uproar across the Muslim world about an anti-Islam film.
"The operational commanders have been asked to review their force protection and tactical activities in the light of the current circumstances and make adjustments as required during this period of heightened tension," spokesman Jamie Graybeal said.
Meanwhile, a protest in Kabul over the film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad turned violent Monday with hundreds of men torching tires, cars and shipping containers and lobbing rocks at a U.S. base on the edge of the capital. More than 20 police officers were injured by rocks before the protesters were finally dispersed by officers shooting in the air, officials said.
The U.S. is expected to announce in the next few days that it has completed the withdrawal of the 33,000 troops ordered into the fight as part of a military surge three years ago.
With those troops gone, the U.S. will have about 68,000 forces on the ground in Afghanistan.