PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan – German soldiers, just back from patrol, had already started shedding their heavy body armor when shots rang out Friday at their coalition base in northern Afghanistan. An Afghan soldier, a man they thought was on their side, was spraying them with bullets at close range.
The shooter was gunned down, but not before he killed three German soldiers and wounded six others in a tragic shooting that highlights the challenges of trying to train Afghan security forces so foreign troops can go home.
The Afghan soldier in Baghlan's provincial capital, Pul-e-Khumri, was part of a joint operation between the German and Afghan militaries, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told reporters in Berlin.
"Working together carries risks," said Guttenberg, who earlier this week spent the night with German troops at the base in northeast Afghanistan. "Still, this attack may not lead to questioning the partnering (with the Afghan army) that has so far been successful because this would only serve our enemies."
Friday's shooting was one of several deadly incidents reported across Afghanistan, which is expecting an escalation of violence as winter fades to spring.
A suicide attacker in a bomb-laden car struck a police station in the eastern Afghan city of Khost, along the border with Pakistan, killing 11 people — one Afghan policeman and 10 civilians — and wounding 41, according to Mobarez Zadran, a spokesman for the provincial governor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing.
A roadside bomb killed three Afghan policemen and wounded two others in the Shinwar district of the eastern province of Nangarhar, according to Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
Another roadside bomb killed a coalition service member in southern Afghanistan, NATO said, without providing a nationality.
The attacks raised to at least 20 the number of coalition troops who have died in Afghanistan so far this month.
It was about noon on a cold, foggy day when medics with the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Battalion Task Force Mustang from Fort Hood, Texas, got word of the German casualties, according to Anja Niedringhaus, a photographer with The Associated Press who is embedded with the medevac unit.
Two medevac helicopters from the task force were dispatched to the scene and rescued six German soldiers. A helicopter from another U.S. medevac unit transported the other German soldiers to medical facilities.
As their chopper flew from the scene, U.S. medics James Brown and Robert Amrani feverishly tended to the soldiers' bullet wounds, including some to the chest and head. Amrani pumped two soldiers' hearts simultaneously. Despite his effort, one soldier from southern Germany died amid the noise of the rotors.
"I tried so hard, but I couldn't save him," Amrani said.
Two other German soldiers who were hospitalized later died of their wounds.
Their deaths raised to 48 the number of German troops who have been killed since the war began in 2001. Not all died in combat.
Three of the six German soldiers who were wounded in the shooting suffered severe injuries, according to German military officials.
"I wish the wounded soldiers the strength and stamina to a speedy recovery," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement.
"I strongly condemn this nefarious act of terrorism," he said. "This attack was not only on the Bundeswehr (the German army), it was an attack on all of those who are working for a peaceful Afghanistan."
Germany currently has 5,030 troops in Afghanistan.
The Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan has long had only lukewarm support among Germans, and is now getting increasingly unpopular.
In a poll at the end of January, 37 percent of respondents supported Germany's military commitment there and 59 percent opposed it. Support has slipped from 45 percent in December 2009. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The international coalition is ramping up the training of Afghan soldiers and policemen so they can take the lead in securing their nation by the end of 2014. The Afghans added more than 70,000 police and soldiers last year and the force is now 270,000 strong.
Since late 2009, there have been three incidents of Afghan police and soldiers turning on their NATO comrades.
The U.S.-led NATO coalition is working with the Afghan National Security Forces to improve the way that police and soldiers are vetted so that infiltrators and criminals can be weeded out of the ranks, according to officials with the training mission in Kabul. The Afghan army and police are expected to start in mid-March collecting biometric and personal data on all members of the Afghan security forces — a job that is expected to take months.
On Nov. 29, 2010, six U.S. soldiers were killed by a rogue Afghan border policeman who opened fire on his American trainers as the group headed to shooting practice. The gunman was killed in the shootout in Nangarhar province near the Pakistani border. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the officer had enlisted as a sleeper agent to have an opportunity to kill foreigners.
On July 13, 2010, an Afghan soldier killed three British service members with gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade. The soldier fled the base after carrying out the attack in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed that he was a militant sympathizer who was taken in by insurgents after the assault.
In November 2009, an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers at a checkpoint in Helmand province.
Eight similar incidents have occurred in Iraq since 2004. One or two U.S. troops were killed in each of the incidents, most involving rogue Iraqi soldiers.
The latest was on Jan. 25, when an Iraqi soldier smuggled in live ammunition to a training exercise and killed two U.S. troops in the northern city of Mosul.
Associated Press writers David Rising and Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Rebecca Santana in Baghdad and Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report. Riechmann reported from Kabul.