An Afghan soldier killed a NATO service member before being shot to death in return fire Sunday in southern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of attacks against foreigners blamed on government forces within their own ranks.
Nearly 20 such attacks this year have raised the level of mistrust between the U.S.-led coalition and their Afghan partners as NATO gears up to hand over security to local forces ahead of a 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops.
In another sign of deteriorating security, the United States is considering abandoning plans for a consulate in the country's north because the building chosen was deemed too dangerous to occupy. The United States spent $80 million on the project despite glaring security deficiencies in the former hotel, according to a copy of a document drafted by the U.S. Embassy in this capital city.
Those problems -- including shoddy construction that would lead to a "catastrophic failure" of the building in a car bomb attack -- were overlooked and waivers to strict State Department building rules were granted as officials rushed to open the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif as a sign of America's long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the diplomatic memo shows.
While Mazar-i-Sharif was considered relatively safe when the project was approved in 2009, the memo said, a number of incidents in the city indicate that this is no longer true, including an attack last April on a nearby U.N. compound in which a mob stormed the facility and killed seven foreigners -- three workers and their guards.
Winning over the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek minorities who dominate the north, was one of the reasons the United States wanted a consulate there. But the site picked was doomed from the start, the embassy documents show.
The compound shared a perimeter wall with local shopkeepers and was surrounded by tall buildings that could be used for an attack, the memo said. The distance between the compound's buildings and the outer wall also was not up to U.S. standards, it added.
The Afghan soldier opened fire on international troops in the Tarekh Naver in the Marjah district, a former Taliban stronghold that was the site of a major offensive by coalition forces in 2010, said a spokesman for the governor of Helmand province.
NATO confirmed that one service member was killed by an attacker wearing an Afghan army uniform in the country's south and that coalition forces returned fire and killed the gunman. But the alliance provided no details, saying that an investigation was under way.
The provincial governor's spokesman, Daud Ahmadi, said the service member was killed in a gunfight between NATO forces and an Afghan army soldier, with one service member killed and another wounded.
The insider threat to foreigners trying to mentor and strengthen Afghan security forces has existed for years but has grown more deadly.
The U.S.-led coalition routinely reports each time an American or other foreign soldier is killed by an Afghan in uniform, but the military is underreporting the number of overall attacks. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the coalition does not report attacks in which the Afghan wounds -- or misses -- his U.S. or allied target. It also doesn't report the wounding of troops who were attacked alongside those who were killed.
The number of such attacks has been on the rise. So far this year, there have been 19 attacks killing 12 soldiers, compared with 21 last year killing 35 coalition service members, according to NATO figures.
That compares with 11 fatal attacks and 20 deaths in the previous year. In 2007 and 2008, there were a combined total of four attacks and four deaths.
U.S. officials say that in most cases the Afghans who turn their guns on their allies are motivated not by sympathy for the Taliban or on orders from insurgents, but rather act as a result of personal grievances against the coalition.
Also Sunday, a NATO service member was killed by a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the alliance said, raising to 139 the number of foreign troops deaths so far this year.
The heads of the Senate and House intelligence panels said Sunday that the Taliban have grown stronger since 33,000 more U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., offered the pessimistic report on CNN's "State of the Union" after a fact-finding trip to the region where they met with President Hamid Karzai.
When asked whether the Taliban's capabilities have been degraded, Feinstein said: "I think we'd both say that what we've found is that the Taliban are stronger."
More than 1,800 U.S. troops have been killed in the decadelong war. About 90,000 service members remain deployed, down from a peak of more than 100,000 last year.