US Embassy shooting in Kabul heightens concerns about Afghan security

An Afghan US Embassy employee in Kabul killed an American in an annex known to be used by the CIA. The incident raises further questions about the reliability of America’s Afghan partners.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
An Afghan policeman stops a car close to the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan last Tuesday.

One American citizen is dead and another wounded after a lone Afghan gunman opened fire in an annex of the US Embassy in Kabul on Sunday night, highlighting that the relationship between Western officials and their Afghan counterparts is as unstable as ever.

The attack is the latest in a litany of shootings that have occurred when an Afghan working with international forces here turns his weapons against his Western partners. The shooter, who was killed during the attack, was an Embassy employee but his motives remain unclear.

Coming just two weeks after the 20-hour long attack on the US Embassy and less than a week after the assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the incident contributes to an increasingly bleak picture of security in Kabul and the ability of Afghan forces to do anything about it.

Sunday’s shooting could be of particular significance as it took place inside an area of the Embassy known to be used by the Central Intelligence Agency. It may also be the first time an Afghan working with a Western civilian organization killed his counterparts.

US officials have remained exceptionally tight-lipped about the incident, likely due to its potential link with the CIA. Intelligence officials have yet to offer any public comments and the Embassy issued only a brief statement confirming the shooting and saying, “The lone gunman, an Afghan employee, was killed. The motivation for the attack is still under investigation.”

Many such shootings do not necessarily occur because of insurgent infiltration. In April when an Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire on the military side of the Kabul airport over a personal dispute, killing eight NATO soldiers and one foreign contractor. NATO officials have estimated that half of such incidents occur as a result of personal disputes or due to mental instability.

Throughout my own reporting on the Afghan security forces and the police in particular, I, along with many other journalists, often include a caveat such as “the Afghan police, widely regarded as corrupt and unreliable by many Afghans.”

In causal conversations with NATO officials, I’ve often been told that they find this characterization of the Afghan police and security officials to be quite irksome. They point to the continual expansion of the force along with a corresponding growth in professionalism.

However, when you live in Afghanistan outside the confines of a military base the problems are readily apparent. While the police may be better at holding their weapons correctly and basic soldiering skills, there’s an overwhelming lack of professionalism.

In the last three days, I have personally been physically assaulted by police in Kabul without any clear pretenses. While sitting on a wall outside the cemetery, where Mr. Rabbani’s funeral was taking place waiting with other journalists for permission to enter without any warning a police officer grabbed my arm, twisting it into an uncomfortable hold, and tried to drag me away from the cemetery until his boss intervened and told him to stop. Neither I, nor any of the other journalists, had been taking pictures or speaking to anyone outside the media group.

On Sunday night, a cab dropped me off at a common spot for taxis to stop next to an ISAF base. The shooting at the US Embassy had yet to occur, so there was no reason for anyone to be tense.

As I was paying the driver, a police officer came up to the car and hit the passenger window hard enough that it nearly broke. He then opened my door and kicked me in the side, before his superiors intervened. The incident concluded when he checked my ID (which he held upside down, presumably unable to read it) and didn’t search me or the car, but let me enter the secure area carrying several bags.

I’m treated far better by the police as a foreigner than any Afghan, most of whom have numerous stories about police extortion and violence.

As shootings and security breaches become an almost weekly occurrence in Kabul, there are few, if any, indicators that immediate action is being taken to improve the situation. Incidents such as Sunday’s stand as a stark reminder that due to insurgent influence or a plain dearth of professionalism, Afghan security forces have a long way to go.

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