Killing of 8 Afghan Guards Shows Bitter Change at Bagram

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan — It used to be one of the most coveted jobs in Afghanistan: a position on a sprawling American military base, the biggest in the country. Pay was above average. The base was well guarded. Surrounding Parwan Province was one of the safest places in the country, well known as a Taliban-free zone.

All that has changed over the past year, as the deaths late Monday of eight Afghan guards who worked at Bagram Air Base dramatically demonstrated. And it was yet another indicator that the Taliban have spread their areas of operation to most parts of the country.

On Tuesday, Afghan police officials said that “unknown gunmen” had shot up a car crowded with workers headed for the night shift at the base, killing eight civilians and wounding two.

Through Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman, Taliban officials quickly boasted that their insurgents were the “unknown gunmen” and that they had killed not civilians, but armed guards, “after serious investigations about them.” The victims, Mr. Mujahid said in an emailed statement, were long-term spies for the Americans, as well as guards.

The reality, based on interviews with government officials, workers’ groups at Bagram and families of the victims, was far more mundane.

The men were indeed guards working at Bagram, which remains the country’s biggest military base even after huge reductions in foreign military personnel, from a high of 150,000 in 2013 to only about 14,000 now, fewer than 9,000 of them Americans. But off-duty, they were unarmed. The victims worked for a private security contractor, according to Abdul Shokoor, the Bagram district governor, and since they were Afghans, they were only allowed to work on the outermost of the three rings of security barriers around the base and could not take their weapons home. The guards in the second ring were from the Philippines, Nepal or elsewhere, and lived on the base, he said. The innermost ring were American soldiers.

Distrust by the Americans of Afghan workers at Bagram runs deep, especially after a suicide bomber penetrated all three rings of security to enter the base in November, blowing himself up amid a group of American soldiers and civilian workers, at least four of whom were either killed outright or died of their wounds. The bomber was later determined to have been a mechanic who worked on the base, Qari Nayeb, who had formerly been a member of the Taliban but had renounced the insurgency and joined the peace process. Sponsored by Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, and vouched for by village elders, he was given a job at Bagram, according to Afghan officials.

After the November suicide bombing, the American military sharply reduced the number of Afghan workers at the base to 1,500 from 3,000, according to Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, then the spokesman for the United States military in the country. Afghan officials at the time said that 3,000 Afghan staff members had been laid off.

“The November attack spurred us to re-examine who is working on the base,” General Cleveland said. “We have made changes, not only based on force protection concerns, but we also took the opportunity to bring the number of contractors in line with the reduction of forces.”

One of the precautions instituted as a result, Afghan officials said, was that the guards were only allowed to carry weapons when on duty and could not take them home, or carry them to and from work. They also were not allowed to live on the base, a privilege now restricted in most cases to non-Afghan personnel.

The guards killed Monday night lived in the small village of Kotwali, about six miles from the base, and they would have been paid salaries of about $250 a month each, more for supervisors. None could afford to own a car. Ten of them joined together to pay the $300 monthly rent for a station wagon for the trip to work every day, typically with two people riding in the front seats, four in the back seats, and four others crammed into the rear luggage compartment.

On Monday night their shift at Bagram was scheduled to begin at 10 p.m., and at 9:45 they reached the village of Shahka, less than two miles from the base, where a Taliban ambush was waiting for them, the Afghan police said. An unarmed man stepped into the road, and when the car stopped, he looked inside, said, “This is them,” and ducked out of the way. Two armed Taliban on either side of the road opened fire on the car with automatic weapons, according to Zaman Mamozai, the Parwan Province police chief. “The driver made a mistake,” Mr. Mamozai said. “He never should have stopped the car for the unarmed man.” He said an investigation was underway to determine who in the village had told the Taliban about the guards.

Malik Abdul Jabbar, the village chief in Kotwali, said he lost three relatives: a nephew, Shamsuddin, 28, who had three children; a cousin, Mohammad Aman, 50, who had 10 children; and another cousin, Mohammad Usman, 40, who had seven children. “If they were inside the base, it would have been more secure for them, but Americans are not allowing Afghans inside the base,” Mr. Jabbar said.

Last year’s mass firings at the base have had a huge economic effect on the surrounding area, since it was by far the biggest employer in the province, other than the agricultural sector. Mohammad Asif, the Bagram deputy district governor, said the Americans’ suspicions had caused resentment in the area, which in turn risked feeding the insurgency. “Sometimes it makes one say, based on the principles of Islam, may God banish them from this land,” Mr. Asif said.

In addition to the attack Monday night, a scattering of rockets and mortars have struck the Bagram base itself, according to Afghan officials, although most have not caused casualties.