WASHINGTON – It was a sneak attack, but not by the enemy they feared.
U.S. Army Capts. Joshua Lawrence and Drew Russell were inside a small command post on an Afghan army base, wrapping up a long day of coordinating the safe arrival of nearly 100 Afghan religious and tribal leaders for a peace conference at a nearby palace.
Darkness had fallen.
Some of their fellow soldiers had retired for the evening. Two stood guard.
All seemed well.
But as several soldiers sprawled on nearby cots, playing cards, the calm collapsed catastrophically at 9:27 p.m.
An exploding grenade shattered the stillness, followed in seconds by bursts of gunfire. Before any of the Americans could raise a hand to defend themselves, Lawrence was dead from a bullet to the head, and Russell was dying, shot three times in the back.
They were not killed by the Taliban, as the U.S.-led military coalition indicated the day after the Oct. 8, 2011, assault. Lawrence, 29, of Nashville, Tenn., and Russell, 25, of Scotts, Mich., were killed in what U.S. investigators later called a “calculated and coordinated” attack by Afghan soldiers entrusted to work alongside their U.S. partners.
This is the first published account of the attack and is based on internal Army records and interviews in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
For Russell’s family, the anguish is still fresh. His father, Jim, said the loss was even harder to accept after learning from the Army’s investigation report early this year that it was a supposed ally, not the Taliban, who killed his son.
“It wasn’t like a battle, you know. He pretty much got ambushed,” he said, pausing at length to settle his emotions. “That makes it difficult.”
On that moonlit Saturday evening, Russell was the designated “battle captain,” or duty officer, in the command center. Lawrence worked beside him as a plans officer. Both were members of the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd “Warhorse” Brigade. They deployed to Afghanistan in June 2011. Lawrence had married just one week before leaving; the honeymoon was to wait until he returned home.
The Associated Press learned details of the attack from formerly secret Army investigation records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Army removed substantial portions of the documents to protect what it called properly classified information as well as the identities of most people involved. The AP established some identities on its own.
The investigation – a standard process in a war zone – found security at the U.S.-Afghan command post was so relaxed guards were not told to check anyone entering. Potential Afghan thievery, not treachery, was judged the chief threat. Thus the killers had unfettered access and moved about without arousing suspicion.
Only 10 designated Afghan security personnel were supposed to be in the compound, but U.S. guards were given no access roster. Unknown numbers “freely entered and exited the compound unchecked,” an Army investigator found.
The Americans had been told to treat the Afghans as if they were mingling in Iron Horse Park, a recreation area on their home base, Fort Carson, Colo., according to a staff sergeant who was present but whose name is blacked out on his sworn statement to investigators.
The Americans had convinced themselves, 10 years into a war whose successful outcome depended on empowering local security forces, that they could trust their Afghan colleagues. That was a deadly miscalculation in this instance and dozens more in the months that followed as growing numbers of Afghan troops turned their guns on their coalition partners.
As the attacks mounted this year, U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington insisted these were “isolated incidents.” They routinely withheld details and, until pressed by the AP, did not publicly disclose attacks in which coalition troops were wounded but not killed.
At least 63 coalition troops – mostly Americans – have been killed, by the AP’s count, and more than 85 wounded in at least 46 insider attacks so far this year. That’s an average of nearly one attack a week. In 2011, 21 insider attacks killed 35.
The attack that killed Lawrence and Russell in the southern city of Kandahar was the 17th of 2011. Breaking it down in detail shows how easily it can be done.
The two officers and five other U.S. soldiers were inside a soft-skinned, tan-colored tent that served as a temporary “tactical command post” on an Afghan army base known as Old Corps Headquarters. Their task was to coordinate a security plan for the three-day peace conference at nearby Mandigak Palace. Their body armor was stacked in one corner, their weapons in another.
Their partners that day included liaison officers from Afghan security services, including the national intelligence agency and the army. The four liaisons excused themselves for the night and left the compound shortly before the attack. They had been working inside the tent and would have been in the line of fire had they stayed.
The Army investigator called this circumstance “worth noting,” but he established no proof of complicity by the Afghan security officers.
An Afghan investigation concluded that only one soldier, a sergeant identified as Enayut (Afghans often use just one name) fired on the Americans, according to a summary of the probe, while the U.S. Army concluded there were two shooters.
Several U.S. soldiers recalled noticing two, possibly three, Afghans enter the compound about 9 p.m. They stood out because they were armed with one rocket-propelled grenade and at least one M16 rifle. At least one was wearing an Afghan army uniform, the report said. No one questioned them, since there was no screening requirement in place.
“They just walked in like they owned the place,” a U.S. sentry at the compound’s barricaded entrance told investigators afterward. Like others, his name was blacked out of the report.
Lawrence apparently died instantly of his head wound. Russell was declared dead a short time later at a nearby helicopter landing zone as colleagues prepared to evacuate him and three seriously wounded soldiers to medical facilities at Kandahar Air Field.
Four other soldiers were wounded less severely.
The killers escaped – apparently with inside help. They remain at large.
Gen. Jallaad Rahimi, who was the chief military prosecutor in Kandahar at the time, told the AP in a recent interview that the father and brother of Sgt. Enayut, plus three of his fellow soldiers, are in detention. The three soldiers are not accused of shooting anyone but are charged with neglecting their duties or assisting Enayut, Rahimi said. For example, the rocket-propelled grenade fired by Enayut was assigned to a member of his unit who told investigators that Enayut had taken it from him that evening when he was not looking, Rahimi said.
The U.S. military never established a clear motive for the attack in Kandahar. In its aftermath, numerous Afghans told U.S. officers they felt shamed by the killings and were sorry for any mistrust it created. But that sentiment apparently was not universal.
A soldier told investigators the day after the attack he and other soldiers encountered an Afghan soldier who “gave us a vibe that he wished we were killed.”