KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Two U.S. troops were gunned down by two Afghan soldiers and an accomplice Thursday, the latest of six American service members killed by their Afghan partners since the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. base last week sent anti-Americanism soaring in a nation that has long distrusted foreigners.
The killings come at a time when international troops have stepped up training and mentoring of Afghan soldiers, police and government workers so the Afghans can take the lead and the foreign forces go home. Success of the partnership, the focus of the U.S.-led coalition's exit strategy, is threatened by a rising number of Afghan police and soldiers - or militants disguised in their uniforms - who are turning their guns on their foreign allies.
The latest victims were killed on a joint U.S.-Afghan base in Zhari district of southern Kandahar province by two Afghan soldiers and Afghan civilian literacy instructor who fired from a sentry tower, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. NATO forces shot and killed two of the assailants, apparently the soldiers, said Pentagon press secretary George Little.
On Feb. 25, two U.S. military advisers were found dead with shots to the back of the head inside the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul. Two U.S. troops were killed Feb. 23 by an Afghan soldier during an anti-Western protest over the Quran burning.
The U.S. apologized for the burning, saying the Islamic texts were mistakenly sent to a garbage burn pit Feb. 20 at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul. But the incident raised what had been simmering animosity toward outsiders to a full boil. Deadly protests raged around the nation for six days - the most visible example of a deep-seated resentment bred by what Afghans view is a general lack of respect for their culture and religion.
Afghan policeman Khalid Khiri turns his head now and spits when he sees a U.S. military convoy roll by.
The 25-year-old policeman says it was fine to fight alongside the Americans. But after the Muslim holy books were burned at a U.S. base, he says he detests them.
"If they're going to burn the Quran, we don't want them here," he said this week on a road just south of Kabul. "They will never be forgiven for betraying the holy book."
Afghans have staged demonstrations in the past over NATO airstrikes that have inadvertently killed civilians, deadly traffic accidents involving U.S. military vehicles and night raids that Afghans say violate their privacy, disrespect women and lead to the detention of innocents. But desecration of the Muslim holy book struck at the heart of the Afghan people and their religion.
Thousands unleashed their anger in the largest display of anti-Americanism so far in a war that has claimed the lives of at least 1,779 members of the U.S. military, according to an Associated Press count. The demonstrations, which left more than 30 people dead, also were a venue for war-weary Afghans to express their frustration that tens of thousands of international troops and billions of dollars in foreign aid have not brought them peace or major improvements to their daily lives.
Hundreds of Western advisers were told not to report to government ministries and a few are just starting to trickle back.
"This is the most emotive incident that has happened so far. It's been really at a peak," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "Even people who are really moderate are sort of exasperated," she said of Afghans' response to the Quran incident. They are saying, "How can you do this? How are we supposed to go on like this?"
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Afghans generally do not hate Americans and noted that the thousands of people who protested were a fraction of the nearly 30 million people who live in Afghanistan. But he wrote in a recent opinion piece that the violent protests have strengthened the argument of those in the U.S. who want a faster withdrawal of American forces.
"Many Americans seem to be saying that if the Afghan people don't want us there, why should we stay?" he wrote. "That's dubious logic because we are not in Afghanistan as a favor to the Afghan people. We are there to protect our own self-interest in not having their territory once again become a haven for al-Qaida."
At the Pentagon, Little called the latest attack troubling but said the U.S. intends to "stay the course" with its basic strategy for transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans.
"This is a war zone," Little said. "There is no such thing as zero risk."
Afghan animosity for foreigners does not necessary mean they all want the international forces to leave.
A U.N. survey released in late January, before the protests, reported that 68 percent of Afghans surveyed said foreign troops should stay for the time being, compared to about a quarter who said they should leave immediately. The survey by an independent research firm conducted in-person interviews with 7,278 Afghans in October 2011 in all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces, although some randomly chosen districts were inaccessible because of the threat from Taliban insurgents. It quoted a margin of error of 1.6 percentage points.
Some of the four main ethnic factions in Afghanistan want the foreign troops to stay longer than others do. Many Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of the population and fill the ranks of the Taliban, want international troops to leave immediately. The Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, many of whom were massacred by the Taliban, generally want them to stay as long as violence threatens security.
Unrest provoked by the Quran burning has eased, but analysts predict anti-Americanism will remain at heightened levels for some time.
"This one isn't going away. I think this act fatally compromises our efforts in Afghanistan," said Michael Corgan, an international relations professor at Boston University. "The burnings immediately put at greater risk all the Americans who were doing good things in Afghanistan building and restoring infrastructure."
The recent anti-American riots also have affected other foreigners who work for international aid organizations and have been locked down in secure locations since the protests began. Many Afghans can't tell the difference between an American or European. They routinely say "the Americans" to describe all foreign forces.
The clash of cultures has played out on the battlefield where Afghan security forces have increasingly partnered with their foreign counterparts. Since 2007, Afghan security force attacks on coalition troops have resulted in the deaths of more than 75 coalition personnel and the wounding of more than 110 others, according to the Pentagon.
A May 2011 study, commissioned by the U.S. military, says the incidents are no longer isolated and are "provoking a crisis of confidence and trust among Westerners training and working with the Afghan security forces."
The Afghans generally view coalition troops as "a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane, infidel bullies hiding behind high technology," the report said.
Coalition troops generally view the Afghan forces as a "bunch of cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous and murderous radicals."
Afghan and U.S. troops almost came to blows in March 2010 on a base in Helmand province in the south after Afghan soldiers sliced off the ears of a puppy that the American troops had adopted, according to an AP reporter who was embedded at the combat outpost. The Afghans were treating the animal as a typical Afghan fighting dog that has its ears and tails removed so its canine opponents can't grab them in battle.
In February 2011, an AP reporter embedded with the U.S. Marines in Helmand witnessed Afghan army soldiers abandoning a patrol after the two sides argued over whether the American troops were getting too close to local women. The Marines were escorting an American female engagement team tasked with gathering information from Afghan women.
After the Afghan troops stormed off, the Marines angrily said their Afghan counterparts were just lazy and looking for an excuse not to patrol.
Afghan forces are frustrated with U.S. troops too.
The Afghan forces, according to the study, complain that the U.S. troops urinate in public, use excessive profanity, loudly pass gas, insult them and drink or eat in front of them during Islam's holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims fast during the day. They claim U.S. troops use faulty intelligence to raid Afghan homes and humiliate them by publicly searching them in front of Afghans civilians.
Abdul Manan, an Afghan border policeman in Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan, said he trusts foreign forces "but they don't trust us, which hurts."
"It shouldn't be this way because we both need each other and without trust we can't win," he said. "They don't give us respect, which is a big reason that some incidents occur. Afghans can never take insults."