U.S. troops in Afghanistan now have far-reaching new protections against rogue killers among their Afghan allies, including assigned "guardian angels" -- fellow troops who will watch over them as they sleep.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, ordered the added protections in recent weeks to guard against insider threats, according to a senior military official. They come in the wake of 16 attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by Afghans that now represent nearly one-fifth of all combat deaths this year.
Some of the changes have been subtle, others less so.
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 orders.
Two U.S. military officers working in the Afghan Interior Ministry, one of the most heavily guarded ministry buildings in Kabul, were gunned down at their desks on Feb. 25. 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 Korans and other religious materials in February, triggering anti-American demonstrations and riots. And on March 11, 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, allegedly were killed by a U.S. soldier.
Allen issued a 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, the military official said. Allen also issued other orders that more specifically dealt with security at the Afghan ministries.
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Allen, said the general "ordered commanders to take appropriate steps to protect his troops, prudent steps that make sense to our Afghan partners as well. But he also made it clear that we weren't coming to all stop, that the work must continue, and that we couldn't let the partnership itself become a casualty of war."
U.S. commanders and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say the killings do not represent a trend, and they say that fewer 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 increase in Afghans gunning down troops they are serving with reflects increased tensions between Afghanistan and the U.S. just as the American-led coalition force 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 enhance 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 senior military official, the so-called guardian angels provide an extra layer of security, watching over the troops as they sleep, exercise or go about other daily activities.
Allen noted that the Afghans also have taken some similar steps to provide guards for their own forces.
The Afghans also have inserted their own intelligence officers into their units to help try to 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," Allen said.
He noted that there have also been some arrests by Afghan forces when they identified possible attackers within their ranks.