BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO plans to boost anti-infiltration and other security measures after the January killing of four French soldiers by a rogue Afghan soldier, a NATO spokeswoman said on Wednesday with the alliance facing increasing protests in Afghanistan.
The North Atlantic Council - NATO’s most senior political governing body - made the decision on Tuesday night, having been asked by NATO defence ministers in February to come up with a response to the killings in the Taghab valley of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kapisa.
“It’s a mix of measures concerning vetting, screening, but also training and education,” said Oana Lungescu, spokeswoman for the Western military alliance.
The plan would strengthen security measures for ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan), as well as improve the vetting, screening and monitoring of Afghan forces and “crucially improve cultural awareness on both sides”.
NATO will also offer more leadership training, make sure weapons are properly accounted for and that there are random drug tests. Another aspect will be to ensure Afghan soldiers get leave and are paid on time, to avoid disaffection.
Lungescu said some training would aim to bridge a cultural gap “that can tragically lead to violence and animosity”.
Concerns about the future of the NATO operation have mounted in recent weeks, with angry protests over the massacre on Sunday by an American soldier of at least 16 villagers in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan and over the burning of copies of the Koran on a U.S. military base last month.
Most foreign combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Afghans will then take full charge of security - although with some assistance from NATO allies.
The Afghan security force is due to grow to a peak of 352,000 by October, but this could fall to about two-thirds of that level in the long term, defence ministers said last month.
Afghans protesting the weekend shootings also demanded that Afghan President Hamid Karzai reject a planned strategic pact that would allow U.S. advisers and possibly special forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
But the White House and U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, said the massacre would not alter U.S. withdrawal plans and strategy.
Last month, Afghan workers found charred copies of the Muslim holy book on a military base near Kabul, an incident that sparked angry protests against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and underscored the chasm between many Afghans and foreign forces.
“The events of the last two weeks have been tragic. They have of course dented confidence,” Ambassador Simon Gass, NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Kabul, said via satellite link to a news conference at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.
“But ... I would not agree with those who say that the bonds of trust between Afghans and ISAF partners have been broken.”
He said that plans for the transition to an Afghan-led security operation were on track. Preparations consisted of training Afghan security forces to take over responsibility for security in the country and to help them repel insurgents.
“We are seeing some results in all these areas,” Gass said. “The security transition is on track.” He said attacks by insurgents in 2011 had fallen significantly from 2010.
The January killing of French soldiers by a rogue Afghan soldier prompted France to suspend training and support operations on the ground temporarily and to announce a schedule to pull out of Afghanistan completely at the end of 2013.
The move effectively brought an end to France’s front-line military operations, ahead of a tough presidential election contest for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
NATO’s strengthened measures in Afghanistan will include counter-infiltration staff that will be embedded with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and in training schools. They should be able to detect individuals behaving suspiciously or who have developed psychological problems, Lungescu said.
There will be greater screening of families returning from Pakistan and neighbouring countries, and the number of ANA counter-intelligence officers will increase, she said.
“Some measures in plan are already in use” by ISAF and the Afghan National Security Forces, Lungescu said. “This will be clearly a living document which will be updated according to the situation on the ground.”
Reporting by Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Mark Heinrich