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Kabul, Afghanistan - Afghan authorities have detained or removed hundreds of soldiers in an investigation into rising insider attacks against international service personnel who are their supposed partners in the fight against Taliban insurgents and other militants, officials said Wednesday.
The crackdown is the result of the Afghan Defense Ministry's effort to re-evaluate soldiers to stem the attacks, which are complicating plans to train Afghan forces so that most foreign troops can withdraw from the country by the end of 2014. President Hamid Karzai's government hopes Afghan forces can take responsibility for security nationwide by that time.
The U.S. military is taking precautionary measures too and recently stopped training about 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police, a controversial network of village-defense units that is growing but remains a fraction of the country's army and police force. Karzai has expressed concern that without careful vetting, the program could end up arming local troublemakers, strongmen or criminals.
So far this year, 45 international service members, most of them Americans, have died at the hands of Afghan soldiers or policemen or insurgents wearing their uniforms. There were at least 12 such attacks in August alone, resulting in 15 deaths.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers were removed from the service, but he declined to provide an exact number or specify how many were detained.
Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the U.S.-led coalition's joint command in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters Wednesday that he had heard 200 to 300 soldiers were removed in the re-vetting process, but that he had not yet confirmed those numbers with the Afghan government.
Azimi told reporters Wednesday that many soldiers were dismissed because they submitted incomplete or forged documents. He did not say whether any were connected to the Taliban or other insurgent groups, but noted that some were suspected of having had contacts with militants.
An Afghan defense official said many were ousted for drug addictions, while others did not pass biometric tests meant to weed out recruits with questionable backgrounds. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly disclose details about the re-vetting process.
Terry said he also expected the Afghan government to move ahead soon with a "counterintelligence initiative" to identify insider threats within specific army and police units before lethal attacks are carried out.
Coalition authorities have said about 25 percent of this year's insider attacks had confirmed or suspected links to the Taliban. The militants have sometimes infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan army and police and in other cases are believed to have coerced or otherwise persuaded legitimate members to turn on their coalition partners.
Earlier this year, the U.S. commanders assigned some troops to be "guardian angels" who watch over their comrades in interactions with Afghan forces and even as they sleep. The U.S. also started allowing Americans to carry weapons in several Afghan ministries and made security more of a consideration in evaluating visits to Afghan government offices. U.S. officials also recently ordered American troops to carry loaded weapons at all times in Afghanistan, even when they are on their bases.
In a phone call with Karzai on Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed deep concern about the insider attacks. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said Karzai had assured Fogh Rasmussen that he was doing all he could to stop them.
U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, also discussed the insider attacks on Wednesday in Brussels with the NATO alliance's top decision-making body.
"Karzai sees this as a strategic threat so his government is committed from top to bottom," Allen said. "Culturally, this really strikes at the heart of the Afghans and how ashamed they feel about it. ... We are taking measures to protect ourselves while at the same time recognizing that well-developed human relations can be the best protection of all."
Karzai's national security team decided at a meeting late last month to tighten the recruitment and vetting process and strengthen intelligence units within the defense and interior ministries. Recently, 10,000 to 15,000 individuals have been recruited each month into the Afghan security forces, which are expanding from about 100,000 in 2007 to a goal of 352,000 next month.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said with the goal in sight, recruiting had slowed to about 4,000 to 5,000 a month.
"The speedy process was the result of the need that we had to build up our security forces to the number that was required," Faizi said then. "But now we are close to that number so, in a way, we are not in a hurry. ... The insider attacks is a reason to also bring down this number (of new recruits being vetted each month) - to take more measures and be more careful in recruiting individuals."
The Afghan government, however, is blaming most of the attacks on foreign spy agencies from neighboring countries that have infiltrated the Afghan security forces. Faizi has declined to identify the countries, but in the past, intelligence agencies in neighboring Iran and Pakistan have been accused of enabling Afghan insurgents to destabilize the country.
Pakistan and Iran have each denied any involvement.
Also Wednesday, a U.S. Army OH-58 scout helicopter crashed in the Pul-e Alam district of Logar province in eastern Afghanistan, killing two U.S. soldiers, according to a Pentagon official.
The Taliban claimed they shot down a helicopter in the same area. The insurgents often issue claims of responsibility even when it is unclear whether they had anything to do with the downing of an aircraft.
But the Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the crash is under investigation, said it could not be ruled out that the chopper was shot down by insurgents.
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn in Kabul, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.