Wrong place, wrong time: US general's killing shows growing Afghan peril

US general killed by gunman in Afghan uniform most senior officer to die in combat since Vietnam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 7:39pm

Major General Harold Greene's first deployment to a war zone was his last.

The 34-year military veteran has become the highest-ranked American officer killed in combat in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the highest-ranked officer killed in combat since 1970 during the Vietnam war.

He was slain on Tuesday in one of the bloodiest insider attacks of the long Afghanistan war. An Afghan soldier who had served in the army for three years turned on allied troops, killing Greene and wounding about 15 others, including a German general and two Afghan generals.

Greene, 55, was on his first combat tour in Afghanistan, where he was serving as the deputy commander for training Afghan troops, an appointment that was announced in January by the Pentagon.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Major General Harold J. Greene's family, and the families of our soldiers who were injured today in the tragic events that took place in Afghanistan," US Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno said in a statement.

An engineer by training, Greene wanted to be in Afghanistan, said a US Defence Department official familiar with him. Greene, an expert in logistics, told a colleague in March "how happy he was to be over there" working directly with soldiers and Afghan troops, said the official.

Greene leaves behind his wife, retired colonel Sue Myers, who was a study director and a professor at the US Army War College, and two adult children - a son, Matthew, who is a lieutenant and a graduate of West Point, and a daughter, Amelia.

The attack at Marshal Fahim National Defence University on a base west of the capital, Kabul, underscored the tensions that persist as the US combat role winds down in Afghanistan - and it wasn't the only assault by an Afghan ally on coalition forces on Tuesday. In eastern Paktia province - the same province that Greene's attacker was from - an Afghan police guard exchanged fire with Nato troops near the governor's office, local police said. The guard was killed in the gunfight.

It wasn't clear if the two incidents were linked, and police said they were investigating.

Separately, an Afghan policeman turned his gun on his colleagues at a checkpoint in the south, killing seven police officers, a local official said.

Doost Mohammad Nayab, a spokesman in southern Uruzgan province, said the attack happened in the provincial capital, Tirin Kot. After the killings, the attacker stole the slain officers' weapons and fled in a police car. Nayab said the gunman had Taliban connections and blamed the insurgents for the attack.

An Afghan defence official yesterday confirmed that the gunman who shot Greene was an Afghan army soldier.

"What motivated the shooting is still under investigation, but the shooter was an army soldier, not a terrorist from outside the base," said the official.

Known by the single name of Rafiqullah, the soldier, in his early 20s, joined the Afghan army three years ago from Paktia province. The province is known to harbour fighters from the Haqqani network, which has strong links to the Taliban.

Just before the shooting, Rafiqullah had returned from a patrol with other soldiers. An Afghan official said that others on the patrol had turned in their Nato-issued assault rifles but Rafiqullah kept his and hid in a bathroom. He opened fire when a group of generals, including Greene, walked into view.

However, there was no indication that that Greene was specifically targeted.

A US official said there were indications that Rafiqullah had a dispute with his superiors just before the shooting and that was the reason why he had opened fire.

US officials still assert confidence in their partnership with the Afghan military, which appears to be holding its own against the Taliban but will soon be operating independently once most US-led coalition forces leave at the end of the year.

In his statement, General Odierno insisted: "We remain committed to our mission in Afghanistan and will continue to work with our Afghan partners to ensure the safety and security of all coalition soldiers and civilians."

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have claimed the lives of more than 6,700 US personnel.

Greene was highly educated, having earned five advanced degrees. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1980, he received his military commission as an engineer officer, according to his professional biography.

Greene then obtained master's degrees in engineering from Rensselaer and the University of Southern California, a master's in science at USC, a master's in strategic studies from the US Army War College and a doctorate in materials science from USC.

Florian Mansfeld, a retired professor at USC who oversaw Greene's doctorate work, said Greene was studying corrosion and the reliability of rotor blades for helicopters.

Greene's work took him through different corners of the world and throughout the bureaucracy of the US Army as he worked to update old systems and procure new equipment for the troops as the military moved from one conflict to another.

"Just a brilliant, brilliant guy," said Lawrence Levine, a US Army defence analyst who worked with Greene at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in the mid-2000s.

"This was a man who was working with Microsoft and commercial vendors, who gave his heart and soul to make sure that soldiers were getting the absolutely best that we could provide."

Insider attacks in Afghanistan rose sharply in 2012, with more than 60 coalition troops - mostly Americans - killed in at least 40 attacks that threatened to shatter all trust between Afghan and allied forces.

US commanders imposed a series of precautionary tactics, and the number of such attacks declined sharply last year.

The White House said US President Barack Obama was briefed on the shooting. Obama and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel both spoke to General Joseph Dunford, the top US general in Kabul, who said a joint US-Afghan investigation was underway and who assured his bosses he still had confidence in the Afghan military.

There are only a few US generals in Afghanistan. The highest-ranking among them is Marine General Joseph Dunford, the top commander of US and coalition forces.

The Pentagon's press secretary, Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, said the general and other officials were on a routine visit to the military university at the time of the attack.

In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid praised the gunman. He did not claim the Taliban carried out the attack, although in the past the Taliban have encouraged such actions.

Such assaults are sometimes claimed by the Taliban insurgency as proof of their infiltration. Others are attributed to personal disputes or resentment by Afghans who have turned against the continued international presence in their country more than a dozen years after the fall of the Taliban from power.

Mark Jacobson, a former Nato deputy civilian representative to Afghanistan and now a senior adviser at the private Truman National Security Project, said the threat of Afghan troops turning their guns of their American partners is a serious problem.

"Any sort of insider attack, no matter who the victim is, is going to have an impact on the morale of soldiers," Jacobson said, adding that when a higher-ranking officer is killed, "you might see a wider impact on morale."

Foreign aid workers, contractors, journalists and other civilians in Afghanistan are increasingly becoming targets of violence as the US-led military coalition continues a withdrawal to be complete by the end of the year.