An Afghan teenager fatally stabbed an American soldier in the neck as he played with children in eastern Afghanistan, officials said Monday, as the U.S. death toll rose sharply last month with an uptick in fighting due to warmer weather.
Last week's calculated attack shows that international troops still face myriad dangers even though they are increasingly taking a back seat in operations with Afghan forces ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Just one U.S. service member was killed in February — a five-year monthly low — but the American death toll climbed to at least 14 in March.
Overall, the number of Americans and other foreign forces killed in Afghanistan has fallen as their role shifts more toward training and advising government troops instead of fighting.
But a series of so-called insider attacks on foreign troops by Afghan forces of insurgents disguised as them has threatened to undermine the trust needed to help President Hamid Karzai's government take the lead in securing the country after more than 11 years at war.
The attack that killed Sgt. Michael Cable, 26, of Philpot, Ky., last Wednesday occurred after the soldiers had secured an area for a meeting of U.S. and Afghan officials in a province near the volatile border with Pakistan.
But one of two senior U.S. officials who confirmed that Cable had been stabbed by a young man said the assailant was not believed to have been in uniform so it was not being classified as an insider attack.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the attacker was thought to be about 16 years old. He escaped so his age couldn't be verified.
Cable's brother Raymond Johnston, a 42-year-old waiter in Owensboro, Ky., said the Army told the family the basics of what happened and that his brother was stabbed in the neck from behind.
Johnston said his brother, who also did a tour of duty in Iraq, was "prepared before he left for anything that happened" in Afghanistan.
Cable met individually with Johnston and three other family members before leaving for Afghanistan and had similar conversations with each — that the deployment was extremely hazardous and that his family and friends should "continue to enjoy life" if he was killed.
"He was able to communicate to the family about if the worst was supposed to happen, what we were supposed to do," Johnston said.
Cable's body was scheduled to return to Owensboro in western Kentucky on Thursday. Visitation was scheduled for Friday with the funeral set for Saturday.
The Afghan and American dignitaries were attending the swearing-in ceremony of Afghan Local Police in Shinwar district in Nangarhar province, senior district official Zalmai Khan said. Afghan Local Police, or ALP, recruits are drawn from villages and backed by the U.S. military.
The soldier was playing with children outside when the attacker came from behind and stabbed him in the neck with a large knife, Khan said. Other guards nearby didn't immediately notice what had happened because there was no gunshot, and the assailant was able to flee to neighboring Pakistan, he added.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid identified the attacker as a 16-year-old local man named Khalid. He said Khalid was acting independently when he killed the soldier but had joined the Islamic militant movement since fleeing the scene.
The district official Khan did not provide a name or confirm the Taliban's claim.
The Pentagon said in a statement last week that Cable, died from injuries sustained when his unit was attacked by enemy forces.
The killing comes as the U.S. death toll rose to 14 in March, compared with four in the previous two months of the year, partly fueled by the start of the spring fighting season when the Taliban and other insurgents take advantage of improved weather to step up attacks.
By contrast, at least 67 members of the Afghan security forces were killed last month, compared with 42 in February and 55 in January.
In a success story for the Afghan government, the intelligence service announced that it had foiled a plan to attack the Sulma dam in the western province of Herat.
Agency spokesman Shafiqullah Tahiri said an Afghan man identified as Sayed Gul was arrested with 1,300 kilograms (about 1.5 tons) of explosives. He blamed the Pakistani Taliban for plotting to bomb the dam in a bid to destabilize the country.