Afghanistan
1:17 pm
Thu May 17, 2012

An Afghan Shoots, A Marine Dies, Mistrust Grows

Originally published on Thu May 17, 2012 4:16 pm

Sgt. J.P. Huling, a Marine from Ohio, was killed this month in southern Afghanistan.

It wasn't a roadside bomb or a Taliban sniper that killed him. It was another sergeant — an Afghan soldier known as Sgt. Zabitollah, who like many Afghans went by one name.

It was a grim coincidence that brought these two sergeants together on May 6, a Sunday afternoon, at a mud-walled compound along a desolate stretch of road in a remote corner of Afghanistan.

Huling wasn't even supposed to be there. He wasn't scheduled to leave his base in Southern California until the fall, but he was called up early. Several other Marines in his bomb disposal unit had lost their lives already. They needed Huling to do the job.

In Afghanistan, Sgt. Zabitollah had just visited his family near Kabul.

Both men were married, in their 20s. Both had drifted away from school and joined the military.

Huling took culinary courses at a community college. Sgt. Zabitollah made it to the ninth grade, then left his family farm for the Afghan army.

"Pretty much he was a good sergeant. We were not suspicious of him," said Col. Narouz, who was Zabitollah's battalion commander. "He was a great man. He used to work shoulder to shoulder with Marines."

On the American side, Huling's friends say he joined the bomb disposal unit because he wanted to make a difference.

"Those closest to him characterize him as honest, as a stand-up guy," says Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, who commands all Marines in Helmand. "He loved his wife dearly, because he talked about her all the time.

No Clear Answers

So far, no one has a clear answer for why the Afghan sergeant turned his AK-47 on Huling, shooting him in the stomach and killing him.

Zabitollah was quickly shot dead by the Americans. An investigation by Afghans and the Marines is under way.

What is certain is that these killings are on the rise. Last year, 35 U.S. and NATO forces were killed by Afghans wearing Army or police uniforms.

This year, 22 American and coalition troops have been killed. Three of them have been killed in the past week alone.

"The threat within right now is worrying me," says Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, who commands Marines in the central part of Helmand province. "And the Marines, they know what the threat is, not so much on the outside — there could be a threat on the inside."

Styskal speaks from painful experience: One of his Marines was killed earlier this year by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform.

New Precautions

So American troops are taking precautions. Some are secretly wearing light armored vests under their uniforms whenever they meet with Afghan soldiers or police at their camps.

Now, whenever Afghans and American troops get together, one American is dubbed the "guardian angel" — with an M4 assault rifle at the ready.

For their part, the Afghan officers carefully question their soldiers and police when they return from leave. That's when officials fear they may have been persuaded to support the Taliban.

Styskal says his gut tells him that about half the coalition deaths are from Taliban infiltrators.

"There is a threat of infiltration out there .... The Taliban have even publicly said we need to get into the [Afghan security forces] and stir up the mess," he says.

The Taliban claim credit for all the deaths of coalition troops at the hands of Afghans in uniform.

Heat-Of-The-Moment Disputes

But a recent Pentagon report says most of those troops killed were not the result of Taliban penetrating Afghan security forces. Instead, the report says, the majority are just personal disputes that get out of hand.

That may explain the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Huling's death.

The head of the Afghan military in Helmand province, Gen. Muhammed Ali Shuja-e, thinks there may have been angry words between the two sergeants.

"Some sort of argument may have happened, so this was not totally clear," he says.

Afghan officials say the Afghan forces were searching inside a compound, while the Marines set up security outside. Then, Zabitollah stepped out of the compound and walked toward Huling, who was down on one knee.

"The Marine called him and said don't step out — maybe you'll get shot by the enemy. The Marine yelled two or three times," says Narouz, the Afghan battalion commander.

Suddenly, the Afghan sergeant turned and shot Huling. He later died at an American hospital.

Searching For Clues

Afterward, the Afghans found Zabitollah's journal, which included his father's phone number. An Afghan soldier called Zabitollah's father.

"He said, 'My son was a bright man, there was no connection between him and the Taliban.' He didn't accept the accident happened," says Narouz.

Zabitollah's body was returned to his family. His colonel admits they may never know the truth about why he killed Huling.

"Since he's dead, I can't interrogate him," the Afghan colonel says.

Huling's funeral was held in his small Ohio town on what would have been his 26th birthday. He was awarded a Purple Heart. And Gen. Gurganus is writing a letter to Huling's wife, Priscilla.

"It's really to offer condolences. And we share in the grief of this tragedy. My guarantee to her is we won't forget him," he says.

Gurganus and others say the Afghan commanders also share in the grief and are heartbroken by what happened.

But for many American troops, there's only growing wariness about their Afghan partners.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with the story of Sergeant J.P. Huling, a Marine from Ohio. He died this month in Afghanistan. It wasn't a roadside bomb or Taliban sniper that killed him. Sergeant Huling was shot by an Afghan soldier, a man named Zabitollah, Sergeant Zabitollah. Huling is one of nearly two dozen U.S. and coalition troops killed by their Afghan partners this year alone.

NPR's Tom Bowman is reporting from Afghanistan. And today, he tells the story of these two men and how it came to pass that one killed the other.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It was a grim coincidence that brought these two sergeants together on a Sunday afternoon at a mud-walled compound along a desolate stretch of road in southwest Afghanistan. Sergeant Huling wasn't even supposed to be there. He was scheduled to leave his base in Southern California in the fall, but he was called up early. Half a world away, Sergeant Zabitollah had just visited his family. They live near Kabul.

Both men were married, in their 20s. Both drifted away from school and joined the military. Sergeant Huling took culinary courses at a community college. Sergeant Zabitollah made it to the ninth grade and left his family farm for the Afghan army.

COLONEL NAROUZ: (Through translator) Pretty much he was a good sergeant. We were not suspicious of him.

BOWMAN: That's Sergeant Zabitollah's battalion commander, Colonel Narouz, speaking through an interpreter.

NAROUZ: (Through interpreter) He was a great man. He used to work shoulder by shoulder with Marines.

BOWMAN: Marines like Sergeant Huling, who his friends say joined the bomb disposal unit because he wanted to make a difference.

MAJOR GENERAL MARK GURGANUS: Those closest to him characterize him as honest, as a stand-up guy.

BOWMAN: Major General Mark Gurganus, he commands all Marines in Helmand.

GURGANUS: He loved his wife dearly, because he talked about her all the time.

BOWMAN: So far, no one has a clear answer why Sergeant Zabitollah turned his AK-47 on Sergeant Huling. Sergeant Zabitollah was quickly shot dead by the Americans. An investigation by Afghans and Marines is under way. What is certain is that these killings are on the rise. Last year, 35 U.S. and NATO forces were killed by Afghans wearing Army or police uniforms.

This year, 22 American and coalition troops have been killed and it's only May. Three of them were killed in the last week alone.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL STYSKAL: The threat within right now is worrying me.

BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Styskal. He commands Marines in central Helmand province.

STYSKAL: And the Marines, they know what the threat is, not so much outside, there could be a threat on the inside.

BOWMAN: An inside threat, Styskal knows that more than most. One of his Marines was killed earlier this year by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform. So, American troops are taking precautions. Some are secretly wearing light armored vests under their uniforms whenever they meet with Afghan soldiers or police at their camps.

Now, whenever Afghans and American troops get together, one American is dubbed the guardian angel, M4 assault rifle at the ready. For their part, the Afghan officers carefully question their soldiers and police when they return from leave. That's when officials fear they may have been persuaded to support the Taliban.

Colonel Styskal says his gut tells him that about half the coalition deaths are from Taliban infiltrators.

STYSKAL: There is a threat of infiltration out there and the enemy of Afghanistan have even publicly said, we need to get into the ANSF and try to stir up the mess.

BOWMAN: ANSF being the Afghan Security Forces. But a recent Pentagon report says most of those troops killed were not the result of Taliban penetrating Afghan security forces. Instead, the report says, the majority are just personal disputes that get out of hand. That may explain the circumstances surrounding Sergeant Huling's death.

The head of the Afghan military in Helmand province, General Muhammed Ali Shuja-e, thinks there may have been angry words between the two sergeants.

GENERAL MUHAMMED ALI SHUJA-E: (Through interpreter) Some sort of argument may have happened, so this case or incident was not totally clear to none of the sides.

BOWMAN: This is what Afghan officials say happened that day. The Afghans were searching inside a compound, while the Marines set up security outside. Then, Sergeant Zabitollah stepped out of the compound and walked toward Sergeant Huling, who was down on one knee.

NAROUZ: (Through interpreter) Marine called him and told him that, hey, don't step out, maybe you'll probably get shot by the enemy. Marine call him or yell at him like two or three times.

BOWMAN: Suddenly, the Afghan sergeant turned and shot Sergeant Huling. He later died in an American hospital. Afterwards, the Afghans found Sergeant Zabitollah's journal. It included his father's phone number. An Afghan soldier called him. Again, Colonel Narouz.

NAROUZ: (Through interpreter) He said that my son was a bright man, there was no connection between him and the Taliban. And he even didn't accept the accident happened.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Zabitollah's body was returned to his family. His colonel admits they may never know the truth about why he killed Sergeant Huling.

NAROUZ: Since he's dead, I cannot do some interrogation.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Huling's funeral was held in his small Ohio town on what would have been his 26th birthday. He was awarded a Purple Heart. And General Gurganus is writing a letter to his wife, Priscilla.

GURGANUS: It's really to offer sincere condolences and to let her know that we still share in Sergeant Huling's - in the grief of this tragedy. My guarantee to her is we won't forget him.

BOWMAN: General Gurganus and others here say the Afghan commanders also share in the grief and are heartbroken by what happened. But for many American troops here, there's only growing wariness about their Afghan partners. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.