Afghan military pilot kills 8 NATO troops at airport

Molly Hennessy-Fiske – Los Angeles Times April 27, 2011

At least eight NATO troops were killed when a veteran Afghan air force pilot opened fire Wednesday morning inside a military compound at North Kabul International Airport, in what the Taliban claimed was the latest deadly attack by an insurgent infiltrator.

NATO officials released a statement saying eight troops and a contractor had died after the shooting, but they declined to confirm reports that six of the dead were Americans. It was not clear how many Afghan security forces were killed or wounded.

The 50-year-old attacker, who also died, had not been identified officially, but another Afghan pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that the shooter was Ahmad Gul, a native of the Tarakhail district of Kabul province.

The pilot began shooting about 10:30 a.m. after an argument with a foreign colleague, according to statements released by NATO trainers and Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

“An Afghan officer opened fire on foreigners after an argument,” Azimi said. “For the past 20 years, he has been a military pilot.”

Azimi did not say whether the foreigner involved in the dispute was a member of NATO coalition forces or was among those injured or killed.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that the militia had sent the pilot and that he had killed nine coalition forces and five Afghan troops before he ran out of bullets.

Reporters were not allowed into the compound, where Afghan army troops guarded the doors and no NATO forces were visible. Afghan air force officers, including Gen. Abdul Wahab, declined to comment.

The Afghan air force, formerly the army air corps, was renamed last year after years of training and upgrades by U.S. forces. The U.S.-led Combined Air Power Transition Force has been working to rebuild and modernize Afghanistan’s air force since 2007, and a number of Afghan pilots and trainees have traveled to the U.S. for English language, instrument and undergraduate pilot training.

The air force numbered about 2,400 as of 2009, a year after it inaugurated the new headquarters at the airport. At the time, President Hamid Karzai said they had been reborn, equipped with 26 new or refurbished aircraft, including transport helicopters and Ukrainian military planes bought with U.S. funding.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David Simons, a spokesman for the NATO training mission, said the NATO Air Training Command at North Kabul International Airport “has gone through numerous upgrades to secure the facilities both on the Afghan side and the U.S. side.”

He said 95% of the Afghan air force has been vetted with biometric screening.

He declined to comment on the impact the shooting would have on training and trust between coalition and Afghan forces, saying NATO officials were meeting this afternoon and would release more information later.

During the past two years, NATO officials told the Associated Press, they have tracked 20 incidents in which a member of the Afghan security forces or someone wearing their uniforms attacked coalition troops, killing 36 of them.

According to NATO records, half of the attacks involved insurgents posing as Afghan police or soldiers.

Such attacks are part of a Taliban strategy to undermine the Afghan population’s faith in their own security forces and NATO troops as U.S. forces prepare to begin withdrawing this summer, said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.

She cited two recent Taliban assassinations of prominent local officials and the weekend prison break in the southern city of Kandahar that freed 488 inmates, mostly Taliban political prisoners.

In that operation at Sarposa prison, Taliban insurgents said they obtained keys to their cells in advance, and Afghan authorities say they suspect that someone inside the prison aided them. Although Afghan authorities held a press conference Wednesday to parade recaptured escapees before the cameras, by late Wednesday they had only managed to find 75 of the missing prisoners, to the Taliban’s delight.

“The image they’re portraying is, ‘We’re everywhere. We’re the one who are staying and we can go wherever we want,’ ” van Bijlert said.