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Portrait of an Afghan Assassin

No one is sure what made a 17-year-old poetry-writing cop gun down four Marines. But somewhere in his story is the key to whether we'll ever get out of Afghanistan.

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Outside the Garmsir police station, where an Afghan cop opened fire on unarmed Marines in August 2012

August 10, 2012, was the 22nd day of Ramadan, the holy month when devout Muslims fast from dawn until dusk. Summer days in southern Afghanistan are long and brutally hot, and the few dozen officers at the Garmsir headquarters of the Afghan National Police were relieved when, as the light slanted low over the Helmand River, the sunset call to prayer finally sounded. After the evening meal, no one paid much attention as Aynuddin, the 17-year-old assistant to the police chief, walked into the station, picked up an AK-47, and headed toward the open-air gym out back.

There were seven Marines in the gym that night, part of a police-training team that lived on the second floor of the dun-colored police station. They liked to use the gym—a makeshift cluster of weights and equipment under camouflage netting in a corner of the yard—after dusk, when the heat had begun to dissipate. Hospital corpsman David Oliver, a buff, blond, 24-year-old medic, was skipping rope in the corner. Two younger Marines, Greg "Buck" Buckley Jr. and Richard "Richie" Rivera, were doing dumbbell curls, yelling "Beach Day!" each time they brought the weights to their shoulders.

Members of the close-knit group had fantasized about Beach Day since the unit landed in Garmsir four months earlier. Once they arrived back at their base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, this long-awaited day would be dedicated to women, waves, and booze, the things they missed most in dusty Afghanistan. They had planned every moment—where they'd stay, who'd carry the cooler and who the boom box. In just 40 hours they would begin the journey home. That's why 29-year-old Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson had joined them. He was trying to get in better shape for his wife.

"I don't feel safe here at all," Greg Buckley Jr. told his dad. "I want to come home. I'm telling you, somthing's going to happen to me here."

The end of the deployment couldn't come soon enough. Garmsir wasn't exactly the action-packed war zone that they had been hoping for. Southern Helmand was largely peaceful now, three years after the 30,000-troop surge ordered by President Obama began in earnest, and none of them had fired a single shot in battle. Mentoring the Garmsir police force was a thankless task that they had come to loathe. It wasn't just that the Afghan police were shockingly ill-trained and corrupt, or that the Marines spent their days teaching them the most rudimentary of tasks, such as using handcuffs or tourniquets. What was really galling was that the police clearly didn't want them there. "The Afghans didn't really give a shit," Oliver recalled. "We're supposed to be helping them, and it's hard for us to understand that these guys really do not want our help."

Lurking behind the resentment was a gnawing concern: that one of the cops might turn on the Marines without warning. So-called green-on-blue (or insider) attacks had been sweeping Afghanistan, leaving dozens of Americans dead. Innocent frictions between the two sides in Garmsir—such as arguments over living space—now took on a more menacing tone. The Marines felt like they were walking on eggshells. "I didn't ever feel safe," Oliver said. "It was, 'Be aware, never trust them, always have your weapon on you.'" But that evening he and some of the other Marines had left their pistols on the weight rack. They were almost home free.

Aynuddin stepped into the gym and leveled his rifle.

The surge of insider attacks came out of nowhere. In 2007 and 2008, there were just six such attacks combined against members of the US-led International Security Assistance Force. The following year there were 8, the next, 15. In 2011, there were 22 attacks that killed 33 ISAF soldiers and wounded 50. In 2012, the number of attacks more than doubled, with 48 incidents that killed 64 soldiers, accounting for 16 percent of all coalition combat deaths that year. "The sudden wave of insider attacks caught NATO and the Obama administration completely by surprise," says Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. "It cut against the grain of counterinsurgency theory, because these betrayals happened right at the moment when the internationals were lavishing money and attention on the Afghan forces."

Coalition deaths spiked as partnering with Afghan units increased.

The attacks have had a dramatic psychological and political impact on the international mission in Afghanistan. An attack that killed four soldiers in January 2012 convinced French forces to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. "The French army is not in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers can shoot at them," then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

The perpetrators have come from each of Afghanistan's regions and major ethnic groups, and from every branch of service. They range from lowly recruits to colonels, from teenagers to men in their 60s. Some have been identified as Taliban infiltrators, and many of the surviving attackers have cited their anger at the occupation of their country. But the US military maintains that the majority of attacks have no relationship with the insurgency, and are the result of what it calls cultural conflicts—like the February 2012 case of an Afghan soldier who shot two US troops at Bagram Airfield over the accidental burning of Korans by NATO soldiers.

The attacks have confounded military leaders. There was no parallel experience in Iraq or Vietnam, where the United States also battled powerful insurgencies while simultaneously training local forces. Nor does the cultural hypothesis fully explain why insider attacks exploded in the last two years, after thousands of coalition soldiers have been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and the bulk of the surge troops were in place by the summer of 2010.

By 2012, the attacks had precipitated a crisis in ISAF's training and transition plan. The Obama administration's withdrawal strategy hinges on training a functioning Afghan army and police force that will fill the void once all US combat troops exit Afghanistan in a little more than a year. The training mission had to go forward for the strategy to have a glimmer of success. But soldiers were dying in alarming numbers at the hands of their Afghan allies. This is what the ISAF command was grappling with in the spring of 2012, when the helicopters carrying Buck and his unit touched down in Garmsir.

Once upon a time there was a boy who was seventeen. He would always go to school and attend his classes, but at home he would constantly get into fights, and his brothers and his family were very unhappy with him.

One day, he got into an argument with his mother. She would normally curse him, but this time she even said, "I hope you are hit by a cold bullet."

So she wished even death for her own son. This sentence made him very sad. By now it was sunset, and the boy took some money that he had and left the house.

"The big fight is over, but we are still on high alert. This is their backyard; we have learned to watch our backs. No one can be trusted." Lance Cpl. Brandon D. Seebeck, 23.

"It all started over an argument. I don't know if the Taliban had any influence." ANP Jahanzeb Baloch, 22.

Lashkar Gah, about an hour and a half drive north along the river from Garmsir, is the quiet provincial capital of Helmand, where bazaars selling pomegranates and freshly slaughtered chickens bustle for an hour at sunset before plunging into a deep nocturnal calm. I had come here with a question whose answer had eluded both the Marines and the Afghan government after the Garmsir attack that had killed three Marines: Why had Aynuddin committed such a brutal act?

His family wasn't hard to find. They lived down a side street and invited me into their modest, concrete-walled guest room, a common feature of many Afghan homes. I sat down cross-legged with the men of Aynuddin's family, glasses of green tea steaming before us in the brisk winter air. His 27-year-old half brother, Isamuddin, sat across from me and did most of the talking. He was a truck driver, and he had a round face with black eyebrows that pointed upward in the middle like chevrons, giving him an air of constant concern. Beside him was Shamshad, Aynuddin's full brother, 16 years old with pale freckles, clear green eyes, and roughly chapped hands. "He looks exactly like his brother," Isamuddin said, patting him on the shoulder.

The brothers had grown up during the civil war, a brutal conflict during which many Afghans perished from hunger and lack of medical care. Life was better now, though. Isamuddin and relatives had a decent business hauling containers to the military bases, and so the younger boys like Aynuddin and Shamshad had a chance to go to school. "We grew up illiterate and uneducated," Isamuddin said, tapping his head, "and it's only today that we know about education."

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Like many of his peers, Aynuddin had started school late and had only reached eighth grade by the time he was 17. Still, he was, his brothers said, the brightest and most diligent student in the family, spending hours on his homework and taking private English lessons in the afternoons. Then, in late 2011, a motorcycle wreck left him unconscious in the hospital for several days. He recovered, but after the accident his behavior changed. He was less interested in his studies and got into violent fights with his brothers and mother, throwing punches and smashing dishes. One day, following a particularly heated dispute with his mother, he ran away from home and ended up joining the police.

I asked his brothers why they thought Aynuddin had turned his gun on the Marines. Was it possible that he had been recruited by the Taliban? They emphatically denied it. "Our family doesn't have any links with the Taliban," Isamuddin said. He thought perhaps Aynuddin's head injury and temper had led to the incident. Or maybe the Marines had abused or insulted him somehow. Aynuddin's mother, who had been listening to our conversation outside the door, began weeping loudly. Shamshad, and then Isamuddin, teared up as well. "She regrets getting into the argument with him," he said softly.

Aynuddin was a sensitive type, he explained, always reading and writing. When I asked what he wrote, Isamuddin told Shamshad to fetch "Aynuddin's book." The boy returned with a small day planner with a fake leather cover, its first dozen pages covered in tidy Pashto script. It was a story Aynuddin had written about running away from home. I was astonished. Diary-keeping is an exceedingly rare habit in rural Helmand, and the language is surprisingly articulate for a boy with minimal schooling.

As night fell, the boy went to the park to sleep. Around midnight, a pack of dogs came into the park and surrounded him. He drew his shawl tight and rolled himself inside of it. The dogs came and sniffed at him, but finally the night passed. In the morning, he was hungry, and wondered what to do.

He was tired, thirsty, and hungry. He had run away from home and was now ashamed in front of the entire world. He couldn't even ask for bread, he was too embarrassed. Filled with regret, he asked himself, why did I do this?

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