KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of the worst incidents of an already disastrous spring, eight troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and one international contractor were killed when an Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire in the military wing of Kabul International Airport Wednesday morning.
Details were sketchy throughout the day; initial reports simply stated that there had been a shooting, with speculation that an argument between Afghan soldiers had ended in a firefight.
But as the hours passed the death toll rose. By mid-afternoon, the International Joint Command of ISAF and U.S. forces released a terse statement simply saying:
“At 10:25 a.m. local Kabul time this morning authorities received notification of small arms fire at North Kabul International Airport. A quick reaction force responded to the incident. Eight International Security Assistance Force troops and a contractor were killed in the incident.
"It is ISAF policy not to disclose the nationality of any casualties until proper notifications are made.”
Reports were circulating that six of the dead were American, although that could not be confirmed with ISAF.
The shooting briefly shut down the civilian side of the airport; passengers scheduled to fly were told not to come into the area. But by mid-afternoon flights had resumed.
The Afghan defense ministry released a statement saying that the shooting involved a veteran Air Force pilot and occurred following a dispute. They did not identify the attacker.
According to an independent Afghan news source, the brother of the pilot denied that he had any ties to the insurgency.
Dr. Hassan Sahebi told TOLOnews that his brother, Ahmad Gul, 48, suffered from mental stress due to economic problems.
"My brother Ahmad Gul honestly served his country for about 20 years and was never connected to the Taliban or Al Qaeda," he said.
The Taliban were prompt to claim credit, saying that this latest act of mayhem had been planned and ordered by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s name for themselves. They even named the shooter, “Azizullah.”
Like many Taliban assertions, it could be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But it has fit brilliantly into what is looking more and more like a carefully crafted strategy of sowing suspicion and fear among all branches of the security forces, both Afghan and international.
The Afghan government and the foreign community have jointly embraced the process of Inteqal, or Transition, which involves handing full control over security to Afghan forces by 2014. The first seven sites have been identified and slated for handover by July of this year. Kabul province, in which the airport is located, is one of the initial transition spots.
Also in July, the United States is set to begin its planned drawdown of troops.
These two facts have already sent ripples of alarm through many in Afghanistan, and the past few weeks have deepened that concern.
A series of audacious attacks has managed to create the impression that the Taliban have been able to infiltrate the Afghan armed forces, a claim that the insurgents have been at some pains to foster. Sources inside the Interior Ministry say there could be dozens, perhaps more than 100, such “sleeper” agents within the army and police.
In Kabul last Monday, a man in an Afghan army uniform, and reportedly with a valid ID, gained access to the defense minister’s office, killing three and wounding seven before guards shot and killed him.
A few days before that, a suicide bomber in an Afghan army uniform killed five foreign and four Afghan troops in eastern Afghanistan, and just one day before that an attacker in police gear killed the well-respected police chief of Kandahar.
In early April, an Afghan police officer shot and killed two NATO soldiers in Faryab province, in northern Afghanistan.
By any measure, it has been a bad month for the counterinsurgency.
The most brazen act by the Taliban was Monday’s prison break in Kandahar, which the Taliban claim to have liberated more than 500 of their fighters. The escape was allegedly facilitated by a 1,000-foot tunnel leading to a nearby compound, dug secretly by the Taliban over a period of months.
But Kandaharis openly scoff at the notion that such an operation could have been planned and executed without government involvement.
“It is completely impossible that the government did not know about this,” said a local resident, who did not want to be named. “If we had proper management at the prison, 500 flies could not escape without the guards’ noticing, let alone 500 Taliban.”
Officials at the Defense Ministry insisted that all possible efforts were being made to recapture the escapees; by Wednesday they announced that 71 had been caught. But this may have been optimistic; according to TIME magazine, a U.S. Army directive issued Tuesday instructed soldiers to arrest anyone not wearing shoes, since the prisoners were all barefoot when they escaped. Later reports suggested that only 41 of those apprehended matched the description of escapees.
The incident at Kabul Airport has aggravated an already tense atmosphere in the capital. For days many residents have been curbing their activities, possibly in expectation of violence on Mujahedeen Victory Day, which falls on Thursday.
The Taliban have threatened to disrupt any planned celebrations, and the city has increased the presence of security forces on the streets.
Of course, with the recent spate of attacks perpetrated by those wearing the uniforms of supposed protectors, this may not do much to reassure either the Afghan or the international the population.
“The atmosphere has been unsettled for days now,” said one foreign consultant. “It is like waiting for the other shoe to drop.”