NANGARHAR, Afghanistan — President Trump stood in a misty drizzle at Dover Air Force Base as the remains of America’s latest two casualties in the long war in Afghanistan arrived home.
The somber silence was shattered by anguished cries from the young widow of Sgt. First Class Javier J. Gutierrez, who sprinted toward the plane as the metal cases holding her husband’s body and that of Sgt. First Class Antonio R. Rodriguez were being pulled out. “No!” she screamed, calling out his name over and over.
Just hours before that brief ceremony on Feb. 10, President Trump had made a momentous decision, giving his diplomats a green light for a peace deal with the Taliban that would lead to an American troop withdrawal and, possibly, the beginning of the end of the United States’ longest war.
This was once called “the good war,” “the war of necessity.” When American soldiers invaded Afghanistan in 2001 — driven by the Sept. 11 Qaeda attacks on American soil — and toppled the Taliban’s oppressive government, they were welcomed by large parts of Afghan society.
But since then, the war has become a bleeding stalemate in which even some Afghan soldiers turn their guns on American service members, viewing them as invaders instead of partners. The American sergeants mourned at Dover Air Force Base were killed by an Afghan soldier whose uniform, salary and M249 light machine gun were paid for by the United States.
Of the roughly 3,500 total American and NATO deaths in this war, American officials say, more than 150 have been killed in such “green-on-blue” attacks — assaults so destructive to the American mission that they have their own terminology to describe them. The problem has been so pervasive that soldiers are assigned to guard their American comrades who mix with Afghan forces. They have a special name, too: Guardian Angels.
When the war began, in the autumn of 2001, Sergeant Gutierrez and Sergeant Rodriguez were just 8. Sergeant Jawed, the Afghan Army soldier with a single name who would become their killer, was a toddler. By the time their paths crossed nearly two decades later in a dusty, eastern Afghan village, all three men had become old hands at war.
The army’s Seventh Special Forces Group that the two sergeants belonged to had been in Afghanistan just a few weeks. But Sergeant Gutierrez, of San Antonio, Texas, and Sergeant Rodriguez, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, had joined in 2009. Sergeant Gutierrez, a father of four, deployed to Iraq as an infantryman before heading to Afghanistan as a Green Beret. Sergeant Rodriguez had completed 10 tours in Afghanistan, first as an Army Ranger and later with the Special Forces.
Their Special Forces team was back in Afghanistan just as peace talks were reaching a peak again, along with efforts to hold the line against the Taliban in the field and pressure them to stay at the negotiating table.
In Shirzad district, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, the Afghan Army had pushed back the Taliban. But the operations were stuck. So on Feb. 8, a group of Afghan commandos accompanied by the Green Berets arrived early in the morning in helicopters to see if they could help, according to interviews with more than a dozen Afghan and American officials.
The Afghan Army battalion had taken up as their base a two-story building that resembled office space more than military barracks. It was struck by a double car-bombing last year, so the belts of security around it had expanded. American soldiers climbed the towers around the base right away, keeping guard the whole time they were there.
Among the battalion’s soldiers was Sergeant Jawed, a six-year veteran of the Afghan Army and the oldest son of a brick layer. He left school in 10th grade, faked an ID that bumped his age by two years, and joined the security forces like several other of his relatives. For $200 a month, the army sent him to fight the Taliban.
He got married, and he and his wife had their first child, a boy, three months ago. Sergeant Jawed had managed a transfer just an hour’s drive from home but, busy with the fighting in Shirzad, had not been able to go home to meet him yet.
By dusk that day, the work of the Afghan commandos and their American Special Forces partners was over. They had met the leaders, gone over operation plans. They walked out of the building, into the compound yard, waiting for their helicopters to take them away. The sun had just gone down.
Sergeant Jawed, his weapon in hand, emerged from the side entrance of the building just after 6 p.m., took a dozen steps toward an Afghan Army vehicle where several other Afghan soldiers were. He aimed the machine gun at the Americans and the Afghan commandos huddled on the other side of a gravel path and began spraying.
The shooting didn’t last more than a few seconds. But an M249 can tear through a 200-round ammunition belt in less than a third of a minute. There were at least 43 bullet holes on the cement wall behind the Americans, most of them at chest height, and eight more on a taller empty oil tanker truck behind the wall.
A guard from one of the towers, unclear whether Afghan or American, fired back, killing Sergeant Jawed and leaving the wall behind him riddled with holes, too. But the confusion and suspicion continued for around 10 hours, until the U.S. Special Forces — with two of them dead and six wounded — could be evacuated. At least one other Afghan soldier was killed, and three wounded.
The first scramble was to find out whether they were facing just one shooter or many. One of the first steps the Special Forces took was to disarm everyone at the base, except for the Afghan commandos accompanying them, and ask them to file out one by one. At first the orders were shouted. Then they were announced over loudspeakers. One Afghan Army soldier who resisted being disarmed was badly beaten and had knife wounds, several officials said.
“I told someone next to me this Trump guy is super serious, what if he tells the planes to bomb us?” said one Afghan security force member holed up inside, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We put down our weapons and came out. But the whole time, helicopters were flying overhead and we were nervous that they would be striking any moment.”
The Taliban relentlessly pressure Afghan soldiers and police to turn and fight the Americans as invaders. And the insurgents bully the soldiers’ families to force them to switch sides or quit the fight altogether.
At the same time, as U.S. forces have shrunk their presence and interaction with regular Afghan soldiers, American airstrikes have reached record numbers, often pounding areas close to where the soldiers come from and sometimes killing civilians. In an age of social media and Taliban propaganda, the news of those attacks spread quickly, and outrage against the American presence rises.
In the days that followed, Afghan and American officials struggled to establish whether Sergeant Jawed had turned and joined the Taliban. In past insider attacks, the picture often became clear right away: the Taliban would claim responsibility, and the soldier’s phone records and movements would tell the rest of the story.
But no group claimed this attack. Sergeant Jawed’s background check was clean, a security official aware of the developments said. Afghan officials said he did not fit the profile of a Taliban infiltrator, though others have questioned that assumption.
Gula Jan, 70, Sergeant Jawed’s grandfather, disputed claims that anyone in his family had ties to the Taliban, noting the group had once raided his house because several of his relatives were in the Afghan forces. They even detained him once after he could not pay the fine the insurgents demanded of him because several of his relatives served in the Army.
“If my sons had been with the Taliban, then why would the Taliban open fire on my gate, why would they hold me for three months?” Mr. Jan said.
Mr. Jan spoke at his home just after his grandson’s burial. The military had refused to hand over the body for six days. A couple hundred people, many calling him a martyr, showed up at the burial. A large Afghan flag was planted near the headstone.
The silence from the Taliban about Sergeant Jawed’s attack was matched less than a week later by a muted American response to an airstrike that struck a pickup and killed at least eight Afghan civilians who were going to a picnic, local officials said. There was no statement from the U.S. military, which Afghan officials said had carried out the strikes.
The shooting and the airstrike couldn’t have come at a more delicate time — the peace deal with the Taliban had reached Mr. Trump’s desk.
In September, the two sides had nearly reached a deal. But Mr. Trump called off the talks, citing a bombing that killed an American and a NATO soldier.
This time, with progress in the talks seeming so close — a Taliban spokesman confirmed Monday that the insurgents had agreed to the terms and that the signing would happen by month’s end — few are talking much about the violence that is still happening, perhaps unwilling to risk any deal that carried a hope of ending it.
The remains of Sergeants Gutierrez and Rodriguez arrived in the rain late on a Monday night, their coffins met by a somber president and distraught families.
“It was very emotional,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who watched the ceremony at Dover. “I don’t know how you could go through that and be in favor of or blasé about war.”
Mujib Mashal and Zabihullah Ghazi reported from Nangarhar, Afghanistan; Katie Rogers from Dover, Del.; and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Washington.