WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have assigned "guardian angels" — troops that watch over their comrades even as they sleep — and have ordered a series of other increased security measures to protect troops against possible attacks by rogue Afghans.
The added protections are part of a directive issued in recent weeks by Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to guard against insider threats, according to a senior military official. And they come in the wake of a spike in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by Afghans, including the point-blank shooting deaths of two U.S. advisers in Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior.
Some of the changes have been subtle, others not so much.
In several Afghan ministries, Americans are now allowed to carry weapons. And they have been instructed to rearrange their office desks there to face the door, so they can see who is coming in, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the internal directive.
While Allen did not detail the new measures in a briefing earlier this week, he acknowledged that changes had been made.
"We have taken steps necessary on our side to protect ourselves with respect to, in fact, sleeping arrangements, internal defenses associated with those small bases in which we operate," Allen said, adding that now someone is "always overwatching our forces."
The security measures came after the U.S. military mistakenly burned Qurans and other religious materials in February, triggering anti-American demonstrations and riots. And on Feb. 25, two U.S. military advisers were gunned down at their desks in one of the most heavily guarded ministry building in Kabul.
As a result of the shootings, more than 300 advisers were pulled out of the Afghan ministries. So far, several dozen have returned, but many will not go back until additional security measures are put in place by the Afghans. That would include better vetting procedures, background checks and physical security measures at the ministries. The military official also said some advisers may not return, since commanders have determined that some may no longer be needed in the jobs.
The military official said Allen issued the directive "to get every single troop in the war zone to read it and think" — and to emphasize that troops should be aware of their surroundings as they go about their jobs.
U.S. commanders and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say the killings do not represent a trend, and they say that less than half of the killings have been by Afghans associated with the Taliban.
Instead, Allen said, these types of attacks come with fighting an insurgency and happened in Iraq and Vietnam. The enemy, he said, will do what it can to disrupt efforts to train and grow a nation's indigenous security force.
Still, the recent spike in Afghans gunning down troops they are serving alongside reflects increased tensions between the two countries just as the coalition escalates efforts to train Afghans to take over their own security so that most NATO forces can leave by the end of 2014.
Officials insist the killings have not hampered the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But they come at a time when new, small advisory teams are heading into Afghanistan to beef up the training program, requiring them to work closely with Afghan military units.
So far this year, 16 NATO service members have been shot and killed by Afghan soldiers and policemen or militants disguised in their uniforms, according to an Associated Press tally. That equals 18 percent of the 84 foreign troops killed this year in Afghanistan. Of the approximately 80 NATO service members killed since 2007 by Afghan security forces, more than 75 percent were in the past two years.
In two separate incidents on Monday, Afghan security forces shot and killed one American and two British troops.
In one incident, two British service members were killed by an Afghan soldier in front of the main gate of a joint civilian-military base in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said. And in the second incident, a U.S. service member was shot and killed at a checkpoint in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan by a man who was believed to be a member of a village-level fighting force the U.S. is fostering in hopes of countering the Taliban insurgency.
According to the military official, the so-called guardian angels provide an extra layer of security, watching over the troops as they sleep, when they are exercising, and going about their day.
Allen noted that the Afghans have also taken some similar steps to provide guards for their own forces.
The Afghans have also inserted their own intelligence officers into their units to help try and ferret out possible insurgents or rogue soldiers. And, since the ministry shooting, the Afghans have taken a number of steps to increase building security in the ministries and to improve the vetting of their workers.
"They are helping the troops to understand how to recognize radicalization or the emergence of extremism in some of those, in individuals who may in fact be suspect," said Allen. He noted that there have also been some arrests by Afghan forces when they identified possible attackers within their ranks.