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Afghan 'insider' attack marks grim milestone for US troop deaths

In light of recent attacks, troops are told to "build trust, but make sure you have a bodyguard present." NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Updated at 5:54 p.m. ET: An apparent insider attack by Afghan forces has killed a U.S. service member and a contractor, officials said Sunday – bringing the total number of U.S. troops killed inside Afghanistan to 2,000 according to some measures.

A U.S. official confirmed the latest death in the 11-year-old conflict on Sunday.

The American service member killed was a soldier. The American contractor was working as a trainer for either the Afghan army or police, according to NBC News.

On Saturday night, an Afghan soldier approached Americans, killing a soldier and a contractor; with that, the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan is around 2,100 in the United States' 11-year-war in the country. Insider attacks have become increasingly common – and no one seems to have a good answer about how to stop them. NBC's Lester Holt and Richard Engel report from Kabul.

The attack happened Saturday at a checkpoint on a highway in Wardak Province, a defense official said. Two Afghan National Army soldiers approached the checkpoint and had a brief conversation with the troops there. One of the ANA soldiers then shot and killed the American service members and the contractor, officials told NBC News.

With a suspected "insider" attack at a checkpoint. the US military has suffered its 2,000th death in the war in Afghanistan.  NBC's Atia Abawi and Mike Viqueira report.

A brief firefight ensued, and left at least three Afghan Army soldiers dead - including the initial shooter, officials said.

The Afghan military claimed the Americans were killed by a mortar attack, but the American military insisted that is not true, that the Afghan soldier opened fire and they returned fire.

The dead U.S. soldier was identified as Sgt. 1st Class Riley G. Stephens, 39, of Tolar, Texas. Stephens was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at Fort Bragg, N.C.


The U.S. toll in Afghanistan has climbed steadily in recent months with a spate of attacks by Afghan army and police against American and NATO troops, and questions about whether allied countries will achieve their aim of helping the Afghan government and its forces stand on their own after most foreign troops depart in little more than two years. The U.S. is preparing to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of 2014.

The Associated Press reported Sunday that the latest death was the 2,000th member of the U.S. armed services killed inside Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion on Oct. 7, 2001.  However, that AP figure did not include those who died after sustaining injuries in Afghanistan or those killed in other countries as part of the same campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

TODAY's Lester Holt heads down the road to Sangasar, the physical and spiritual heart of the Taliban. He speaks with American and Afghan soldiers along the way.

According to icasualties.org, an independent monitoring organization which uses the wider definition, the latest death brings the toll of U.S. service members to 2035. At least a further 1,190 coalition troops have also died in the Afghanistan war, it says.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research center, said 40.2 percent of the deaths were caused by improvised explosive devices, with the majority of those after 2009 when President Barack Obama ordered a surge of 33,000 troops to combat heightened Taliban activity. According to the Washington-based research center, the second highest cause, 30.6 percent, was hostile fire.

Tracking civilian deaths is much more difficult. According to the U.N., 13,431 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict between 2007, when the U.N. began keeping statistics, and the end of August. Going back to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, most estimates put the number of Afghan deaths in the war at more than 20,000.

The 2001 invasion targeted al-Qaida and its Taliban allies after the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives in the United States.

"The tally is modest by the standards of war historically, but every fatality is a tragedy and 11 years is too long," Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings, told the AP. "All that is internalized, however, in an American public that has been watching this campaign for a long time. More newsworthy right now are the insider attacks and the sense of hopelessness they convey to many. "

Attacks by Afghan soldiers or police — or insurgents disguised in their uniforms — have killed 52 American and other NATO troops so far this year.

The so-called insider attacks are considered one of the most serious threats to the U.S. exit strategy from the country. In its latest incarnation, that strategy has focused on training Afghan forces to take over security nationwide — allowing most foreign troops to go home by the end of 2014.

As American troops draw out of Afghanistan, officials say the removal plan is on track but that time is precious and the Taliban threat is worrisome. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

Although Obama has pledged that most U.S. combat troops will leave by the end of 2014, American, NATO and allied troops are still dying in Afghanistan at a rate of one a day.

Even with 33,000 American troops back home, the U.S.-led coalition will still have 108,000 troops — including 68,000 from the U.S. — fighting in Afghanistan at the end of this year. Many of those will be training the Afghan National Security Forces that are to replace them.

"There is a challenge for the administration," O'Hanlon said, "to remind people in the face of such bad news why this campaign requires more perseverance."

The Associated Press and NBC News' Courtney Kube and Atia Abawi, in Kabul, contributed to this report.

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