KABUL — For the first time since Vietnam, a US Army general was killed in an overseas conflict Tuesday when an Afghan soldier opened fire on senior American officers at a military training academy.
The slain officer, Major General Harold J. Greene, was the highest-ranking member of the NATO-led coalition killed in the Afghanistan war, and his death punctuated the problems vexing the Americans as they attempt to wind down the 13-year-old conflict, contending with a political crisis that has threatened to splinter the Afghan government and leave it unable to fend off the Taliban.
The general was among a group of senior US and Afghan officers making a routine visit to Afghanistan’s premier military academy on the outskirts of Kabul when an Afghan soldier sprayed the officers with bullets from the window of a nearby building, hitting at least 15 before he was killed.
Though US officials said Greene was not believed to have been specifically targeted, his violent death at the hands of an Afghan soldier, not an insurgent, was a reminder of the dangers faced by even the highest-ranking — and best protected — officers in Afghanistan.
Driving home the threat, an Afghan police officer opened fire on US soldiers visiting the governor of Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan soon after the shooting at the military academy, Afghan and coalition officials said. The policeman was fatally shot; none of the Americans were wounded.
There was no indication that the attackers were members of the Taliban or that their acts were coordinated. The insurgents did not claim the attackers as their own, instead hailing them as hero soldiers. US officials said they had no reason to suspect the gunman at the military academy was anything but an ordinary Afghan soldier whose motivations remained a mystery.
But scores of these so-called insider attacks have plagued the US military in recent years, and Afghan and US commanders believe the vast majority have been carried out by Afghan soldiers and police alienated and angered by the protracted war in their country and by the corrupt and ineffectual government that the United States has left in place. Few of the attacks are believed to have been the result of coordinated Taliban plots.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said officials believed the gunman was “a member of the Afghan national security forces,” but he had no other details about him or the circumstances of the shooting.
Still, Kirby maintained Tuesday that the insider attack, the first in months, would not change the Obama administration’s plans to leave a residual force in Afghanistan after most US forces are withdrawn at the end of the year and the NATO combat mission here formally concludes.
Kirby emphasized the progress that Afghan forces had made in recent years, citing as examples their role in limiting violence in the presidential election in April and the June runoff vote.
“They have had a good year. Securing not one, but two, national elections and stopping or minimizing the impact of countless numbers of attacks throughout the country — even in Kabul,” he said.
Yet the shooting was a blunt reminder that discipline and vetting remain a challenge, and rogue Afghan soldiers and policemen remain a threat, despite a sharp drop in insider attacks since 2012, when the violence peaked and dozens of coalition service members were killed by Afghan counterparts.
With foreign troops having largely ceded their front-line role to Afghan forces in the past two years, training and advising Afghans is one of the few crucial roles still played here by the coalition.
Greene, 55, was one of the most senior officers overseeing the transition from a war led and fought by foreign troops to one conducted by Afghan forces.
His specialty was logistics — he was a longtime acquisitions officer — and he was dispatched to Afghanistan to help the Afghan military address one of its most potentially debilitating weaknesses: inability to manage soldiers and weaponry.
Greene had spent time at US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.
Former senator Scott Brown hailed Greene as “someone I respected greatly, and it makes me angry that he was killed by someone suspected of being a member of the Afghan military. General Greene was a good man, a great leader and a mentor to me and all who knew him. His death is a reminder that conditions remain very tenuous in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban has sympathizers everywhere and still poses a very real threat.”