The desert's nighttime chill had taken hold at a small U.S.-Afghan base in the Taliban's heartland: the home village, in fact, of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the movement's founder and supreme commander. For the American troops manning the outpost, though, the danger came not from outside the wire, but from within.
Hours before dawn Thursday, Afghan assailants, including a man hired to teach Afghan soldiers to read, shot and killed two U.S. troops and wounded a third, Afghan and American officials said. The soldiers slain at the base in Kandahar province were the fifth and sixth U.S. military personnel to die in a span of eight days at the hands of Afghans they had worked alongside.
With these latest killings, the proportion of NATO overall military fatalities caused by such "insider" shootings this year stood at nearly one in five.
The deaths come against a backdrop of deepening mutual mistrust between many Afghans and their Western counterparts after riots tore through the country last week over what officials said was the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S.-run military base.
In the wake of the violence, which has left more than three dozen dead, hundreds of Western military and civilian advisors working at Afghan government ministries were withdrawn by embassies and the NATO force. Troops at jointly run Afghan-coalition bases were ordered to keep their distance, and hold their tempers. Many foreign aid and development groups moved to isolate international staffs, citing safety fears. In Kabul, the capital, most Westerners took care to keep a low profile.
Although mass protests over the Koran burning died down at the end of last week, Western diplomats and military officials are still struggling to assess whether irreparable damage has been done to an already strained partnership with the Afghan military and government. That cooperation, fostered through years of painstaking efforts, lies at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's hope of largely stepping back from its combat role by the end of next year.
It's a big-picture strategic question as well as a wrenchingly personal one. One Western civilian who has been working for months as an advisor to the Afghan government described a close Afghan colleague as being unwilling to meet her eyes after news of the Koran burning broke.
"It was a very, very painful moment," she said. "For me, and I think for them."
Some Afghans, for their part, said they considered the international pullback from government ministries a demoralizing blow, although a trickle of foreign advisors — mainly those with "mission-critical" jobs — began returning to work this week. Sayed Hameed Sadaat, who works with foreign advisors at the Labor Ministry, said their abrupt withdrawal gave the impression of a "weak commitment" on the part of the international community to Afghanistan.
Publicly, U.S. officials have painted the Koran incident as a setback, but scarcely one that could shatter longtime bonds. They point out that the rioters made up only a tiny fraction of the Afghan population, and assert that it was a situation in which the Taliban and other Islamist militants seized an opportunity to both whip up and blend into the crowds. The American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, told the BBC this week that he sees no "permanent rupture" arising from the episode.
But the Koran violence coincided, in perfect-storm fashion, with what has become a quickening drumbeat of so-called green-on-blue attacks: those carried out against foreign forces by Afghan allies. Even before the spate of American deaths that began Feb. 23, the year had gotten off to a bad start: Four French troops were shot and killed in January by an Afghan soldier acting in apparent sympathy with the insurgents, and an Albanian soldier was killed by gunmen in Afghan police uniforms Feb. 20 in Kandahar.
The six American fatalities since the Koran burning became public Feb. 21 include two U.S. troops shot Feb. 23 by an Afghan soldier at their base in eastern Afghanistan and two ranking officers — a major and a lieutenant colonel — shot point-blank at their desks Saturday in the command-and-control center in the Interior Ministry, one of the most tightly guarded Afghan government installations. A ministry worker is being sought in those deaths.
The NATO force said in a statement that Thursday's fatal shootings were carried out by a man believed to be an Afghan soldier, apparently acting in concert with a man in civilian clothing. Afghan officials suggested that the civilian, a literacy tutor working for the Afghan army, had managed to grab the weapon of an Afghan soldier.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force gave the location only as southern Afghanistan. Afghan officials said the base was in the village of Sangisar, in Kandahar province, where Mullah Omar made a name for himself as a village preacher in his pre-Taliban days in the early 1990s.
The chief of Zhari district, where the base is located, said the assailant, whom he identified as a teacher named Wahidullah, was killed in return fire, along with an Afghan soldier. Another Afghan soldier was wounded, Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said.
The Taliban movement generally claims responsibility for such shootings, often asserting that the assailant was someone who was planted in the ranks of the Afghan security forces by the insurgency. But in what could be an indication of the large number of such incidents, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi said commanders were still checking to see whether this shooter was one of their own.
Although the riots' fury appeared largely spent, renewed tension could be in the offing as investigations of the Koran-burning incident move forward, with some results expected in coming days. The Afghans and the Americans are carrying out a joint investigation, but the two sides are undertaking separate inquiries as well.
Among Afghans, there have been calls for those responsible for discarding copies of the Muslim holy book in an incinerator to be tried in Afghan courts, something that Western military officials say privately will never happen, whatever the findings. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the American who commands the NATO force, told the BBC that he did not want to prejudice the investigation's results, but that "appropriate disciplinary action" would be taken against anyone found to have acted improperly.
In the meantime, some Western civilian officials sought to distance themselves and their organizations from the incident. The head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, pointedly told reporters Thursday to "please note that it is not us — the U.N. — who desecrated the holy Koran. It is the military." Kubis also said he supported disciplinary action for those responsible.
Last year, seven foreigners — four guards and three other U.N. staff members — were killed in a normally quiet area of northern Afghanistan when a mob stormed a U.N. office after a Florida church purposely burned a copy of the Koran. A U.N. office in the northern province of Kunduz was attacked in last week's rioting, and international staff members were evacuated, a temporary measure, the U.N. said.
Western military officials until now have depicted attacks by members of the Afghan security forces as an anomaly. But among the troops, the sense of a clear threat was unmistakable.
Outside Kandahar city, where one of NATO's largest bases is located, word of Thursday's shooting at the outpost in Sangisar spread quickly.
"Look, to me there's one message," said an American serving at the main Kandahar base who has often worked alongside Afghan soldiers. "Just don't turn your back. Ever."
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.