WASHINGTON — The recently retired U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan challenged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s description of an increase in attacks on U.S. forces by Afghan police and military as “last-gasp” efforts by the Taliban to sow chaos.

Ryan Crocker, who left his post as the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan two months ago, said in a brief interview Monday in Washington that, while he didn’t want to contradict Panetta, “I will believe it’s their last gasp when I’ve got my boot on the throat of the last one of them.”

“We have seen the Taliban go from mass attacks to high- profile suicide attacks to the indiscriminate suicide bombings,” such as a Sept. 8 blast that killed six Afghan children and injured several others, Crocker said.

The Taliban “are tough, smart and resilient,” he said. “Don’t underestimate your enemy.”

Panetta, speaking to reporters in Tokyo Monday, said President Barack Obama’s administration is concerned about the rising number of “insider attacks” on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops by Afghan security forces — or men disguised as security forces — that he blamed on the Taliban.

Panetta called the attacks “a last-gasp effort” to target coalition forces and “create chaos” because the Taliban have been “unable to regain any of the territory that they have lost” to NATO-led and Afghan government forces, according to a transcript of his remarks.

At the same time, Panetta said the attacks wouldn’t interfere with the U.S. transition plan, which involves training Afghans to take over their nation’s security and withdrawing U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014.

“We continue to work with the Afghan army to not only improve their operations and provide security, but to work with us on the effort to implement this transition,” Panetta said.

Panetta’s comments came a day before nine foreign civilians and three Afghans were killed by a suicide bomber who rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a minivan near the airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.

The Hizb-e-Islami, a militant group led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and allied to the Taliban, carried out the attack in retaliation for an anti-Islam video that has triggered deadly protests across the Muslim world, Zubair Siddiqi, a spokesman for Hizb-e-Islami, said by phone.

On Sept. 16, four U.S. soldiers who went to help Afghans during a battle with militants at a remote checkpoint were killed, apparently by Afghan police, according to the Associated Press.

Complicating mission

The surge in insider, or “green-on-blue,” attacks is complicating the administration’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan while pulling out U.S. forces. The United States and NATO transition plan depends on recruiting and training Afghans to take over Afghanistan’s security from the current 112,579 U.S.- led international troops by the middle of next year.

The killings of international troops by their Afghan partners has raised questions about the vetting and training of Afghan personnel, and sharing duties and bases with them.

So far this year, there have been 37 attacks resulting in 51 deaths of international forces at the hands of Afghan allies or infiltrators, compared with 21 attacks resulting in 35 deaths last year, according to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, known as ISAF. In 2008, there were two insider attacks resulting in two deaths of coalition forces.

Coalition officials in Kabul said yesterday that the NATO- led force has scaled back operations with Afghan soldiers and police to diminish the risk of insider attacks, especially with tensions high over the anti-Muslim video.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the insider attacks “a very serious threat to the campaign” in a Sept. 16 interview with American Forces Press Service.

Aside from the spate of green-on-blue incidents, three groups of well-armed insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms attacked a coalition base known as Camp Bastion in southern Helmand province on Sept. 14. They killed two U.S. Marines and injured nine other coalition troops while destroying six AV-8B Harrier jets and damaging two others, according to ISAF.

One of those killed was the commander of the U.S. Marine air attack squadron, Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible, 40, of Huntingdon, Pa., the Defense Department announced Monday.

The assault is prompting U.S. officials to review the coalition’s counterintelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance programs, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

‘Positive impact’

Crocker dismissed the view of some administration critics that insider attacks are a sign of growing anti-Americanism in Afghanistan, saying there are about “ten thousand interactions” between Americans and Afghans in Afghanistan every day, compared to a few dozen attacks this year on coalition troops.

Aside from killers who may have had personal grievances with their U.S. or NATO partners, the Taliban and other insurgents are the more likely culprits, he said.

Crocker, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon, also gave a public address Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research group in Washington, in his first major speech since he left his post in July.

Crocker said the 33,000 additional forces that Obama announced he was sending to Afghanistan in December 2009 “had a huge positive impact on security.” As the U.S. draws down its forces, he said, it’s vital that administration officials evaluate the security situation and the risks as policy decisions are made.

The current withdrawal of the last of the forces from the 2009 surge will leave about 68,000 U.S. troops by the end of this month, Panetta has said.

Crocker called the training and build-up of the Afghan forces “an amazing achievement” for such a short time.

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