A fatal attack against Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers in southern Afghanistan last year was an inside job carried out by a group of Afghan police officers that included three blood relatives, according to an Army investigation into the killings.
Those ties did not matter to the turncoats. They reportedly killed one of their own — a brother to one of the killers — when he didn’t shoot at a cluster of American soldiers at an overnight observation post last September, according to the Army investigation conducted by Brig. Gen. Ricky Gibbs.
The attack on the observation post in the remote Mizan district of Zabul province killed four American soliers, three of them from Lewis-McChord’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. Two others were wounded.
It was one of last year’s deadliest “green-on-blue” attacks, in which men wearing the uniforms of Afghan security forces targeted their American partners. More than 50 U.S. service members died in those incidents in 2012.
The one in Mizan had immediate consequences for the war’s daily operations, prompting NATO to cancel partnered patrols with Afghan forces for more than a week.
The News Tribune detailed the attack in a May report based on interviews with soldiers from the squadron and families of victims. It showed six soldiers were placed in a detached observation post to deter a spike in mortar attacks in the weeks before the unit planned to leave the area for good, handing its position over to Afghan forces.
Six of their Afghan partners attacked them with AK-47 machine guns about 1 a.m. on Sept. 16, killing Lewis-McChord’s Sgt. Sapuro Nena, Pfc. Genaro Bedoy and Pfc. Jon Townsend, and Spc. Joshua Nelson from Fort Gordon in Georgia. The killers had the high ground, standing on sand bags around the dugout the soldiers were using to scan terrain for enemy mortar teams.
The shooters got away, and apparently murdered one of their own men, too.
Gibbs’ investigation, recently obtained by The News Tribune, gives new details about how the attackers joined the Afghan National Police. They all came from Nangahar province east of Kabul. The killings took place south of there, in remote Zabul province.
They enlisted in the police force with support from Zabul officers who vouched for them in the month before the attack. Those personal references were the main way Afghan leaders screened recruits at the time.
Gibbs’ investigation also reveals the killings occurred at a sensitive moment in the partnership between U.S. and Afghan forces. There were a dozen insider attacks in August and September before the one in Zabul, according to a Long War Journal’s tally of known insider attacks.
The Lewis-McChord soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division got no fewer than seven directives from commanders regarding those attacks in the five weeks before the killings.
“The insurgents’ tactics are deliberately designed to create fear, doubt and mistrust in the minds of the international community, coalition forces and the Afghan population,” read one of the command directives handed down to the Lewis-McChord cavalry squadron. “Their goal is to drive a wedge between the coalition and the (Afghan national security forces).”
The killings in Mizan devastated both sides of the partnership, Gibbs wrote.
Brig. Gen. Shirazod of the Afghan National Police “would have been as disheartened if 10 to 20 (Afghan police) had died as he is of the four U.S.” soldiers killed in action, the Afghan officer told Gibbs.
Shirazod later fired and arrested four of his police officers in the Mizan district, including the area’s police chief. He found them at fault for allowing the killers to join the security force.
American and Afghan officers believed the police in that area had ties to insurgents, but they did not find that police commanders knowingly admitted the killers as part of a plan to attack Americans, according to Gibbs’ report.
“The message that (the police) could have been collaborating with the Taliban was not news to me and did not alter my decisions, because, like I state, I was already suspicious of the (police),” an American officer who was stationed at Combat Outpost Mizan in early September wrote to the investigators.
One of the Afghan police officers assigned to the fatal anti-mortar mission was friendly with Americans. The Lewis-McChord soldiers jokingly called him “Paul McCartney” because he wore what looked like a Beatles haircut.
His real name was Adel, and he’d work with Americans at the observation point to keep them alert. U.S. soldiers trusted him.
“I thought we were cool, as in friendly, because he was always hanging out with us,” one of the attack’s survivors told investigators.
Adel was the one who was killed with the U.S. troops. His brother and a cousin were among the shooters.
“It is suspected that he was shot by the other (police) for not participating in the green-on-blue attack, but this cannot be confirmed,” Gibbs wrote.
Gibbs wrote that soldiers at the lowest ranks in the cavalry squadron understood the threat of insider attacks, had practiced drills about how to respond to them and had practiced up-to-date Army tactics intended to counter green-on-blue incidents since January 2012.
Typically, the main counter measure centered on appointing an armed “guardian angel” from the American unit to watch members of Afghan security forces during partnered missions.
Gibbs noted that soldiers in Mizan had taken other steps to deter insider attacks, such as increasing security between the American and Afghan sides of the fortified outpost they shared. Afghan security forces were forbidden from carrying weapons unless they were on missions or on guard duty.
Yet Gibbs found that soldiers in the observation post where the killings took place could have done more to protect themselves. None was found wearing Kevlar, for example.
Three were awake at the time of the attack, with their weapons and gear next to them. Gibbs wrote that at least one should have been dressed in full battle gear and explicitly carrying out a “guardian angel” assignment guarding the observation post.
Some of the soldiers the general interviewed said they might have grown “too comfortable” with their Afghan partners, even as they insisted they were careful to guard against insider attacks.
Gibbs does not say the attack could have been prevented. American soldiers would not have suspected ill intent until they saw the Afghans raise their weapons to shoot.
One of the two survivors, a communications specialist from Fort Gordon, noticed the moods of the Afghan police appeared to change in the day before the attack. They became less social. One looked angry.
This survivor fell asleep in the outpost after a guard shift late Sept. 15. He woke to the sounds of close gunshots and soldiers screaming from their wounds.
“I decided to be quiet and play dead,” he said.
After the attackers fled, the survivor applied tourniquets to wounded soldiers and was evacuated that night.