In the weeks before his death, 21-year-old Mabry Anders had grown increasingly worried that he might not come home from Afghanistan. The army specialist was battling insomnia and would send brief, worried messages back to his family.
“He talked to me in the day, which would be in the middle of his night,” his father, Dan Anders, said. “He didn’t sleep. He was just worried.”
There were good reasons for concern. During his six-month tour, the Taliban staged a major attack at his base, a suicide bomber had killed one of his brigade’s most revered leaders, and an Afghan villager threw a fire-bomb at a vehicle he was traveling in.
But what Anders may not have expected is that his killer would be an Afghan army soldier, one of those the US military is supposed to be training to take over security of the country ahead of the withdrawal of most US troops by the end of 2014.
A surge in insider attacks (also known as green on blue attacks) has prompted Nato to temporarily curtail some joint operations. The move casts doubt on what exactly international forces can accomplish in those places where they cannot work alongside their Afghan allies.
Interviews in Afghanistan and the United States have uncovered new details about the attack on August 27, which also took the life of another US soldier, Sergeant Christopher Birdwell. These include Taliban claims that the insurgents prepared the Afghan soldier for the killings.
“After the shooting incident a group of Taliban came to my house and said that Welayat Khan was their man,” said Nazar Khan, the brother of the Afghan soldier who was killed by US forces after he opened fire on the Americans.
“‘We have trained him for this mission and you must be proud of his martyrdom,’” the brother quoted a local Taliban commander as saying.
Interviews with Afghan officials suggest that Welayat Khan was not properly vetted. He was admitted to the force seven months before the attack, despite presenting a fake birth certificate and having gotten a flimsy recommendation from a commander who vouched for him simply because the two men were ethnic Pashtuns, according to Afghan sources speaking on condition of anonymity.
Insider attacks now account for one in every five combat deaths suffered by Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, and 16 per cent of all American combat casualties, according to 2012 data. The rising death toll has alarmed Americans and raised new, troubling questions about the unpopular war’s direction.
The Pentagon is promising better vetting of Afghan recruits like Welayat Khan, and Nato last week announced it was scaling back cooperation with Afghans to reduce risk to Western troops.
That includes Anders’ unit, stationed at Combat Outpost Xio Haq in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan, which, for the moment, has halted joint operations.
But it’s unclear whether the United States or Nato or the Afghan government forces they’re training will be able to stop the next Welayat Khan before he strikes.
“Save us from the infidels” Khan was raised in a deeply religious family in the mountain village of Shor Khil, a collection of about 100 mud-built houses near the Tora Bora mountains not far from the Pakistan border.
Relatives said they were taken by surprise when he joined the Afghan army. His cousin Rahman recounted that Welayat had lambasted Western military forces.
“Welayat had a small radio and liked to listen to news about Afghanistan. He became very upset and angry when there were reports about civilians being killed by air strikes,” Rahman said. “‘May Allah save us from the hands of these infidels,’” he quoted Welayat as saying.
According to family members, Welayat had shown signs of mental instability since an accident at work when he slipped on a mountain while breaking rocks for construction. Nazar Khan, Welayat’s older brother, said he would suffer mental breakdowns and “get angry at minor things.”
In Welayat’s pictures, provided by his brother Nazar Khan, he appears clean-shaven, young, stern looking, with a mass of thick black hair. He has a long face and slender build. In one picture he is gently holding his green beret in his right hand, with his left hand resting on the barrel of a machine gun.
Work with the Afghan army meant steady paychecks of about $240 a month, helping his 15-member family. Still, his relatives asked him to quit out of fear of reprisals by the Taliban, who have warned villagers not to join the Afghan security forces.
“We have all warned him to leave the army and find another job,” Rahman said.
Reprisals from the Taliban, it turns out, wouldn’t be a problem.
In cold blood Although the Taliban claim to have trained Khan for his mission, there is nothing to suggest at this point that he knew where, when or even if he would strike on the morning of August 27. By all accounts, he did not know the two US soldiers he shot.
Anders, an Army mechanic from a small town in Oregon, and Birdwell, from Windsor, Colorado, were part of an early morning clearance mission near the Afghan town of Kalagush when the lead vehicle in their convoy hit a bomb.