By Jessica Donati and Rob Taylor
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO ordered a cutback on Tuesday in operations with Afghan forces in response to a surge of so-called insider attacks on foreign servicemen, but said the restriction was temporary and would not derail a 2014 handover of security to Afghans.
The order indefinitely suspending most mentoring operations came from the second most senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General James Terry, and applies to all front-line missions involving units smaller than an 800-strong battalion.
But a senior NATO spokesman, U.S. Colonel Tom Collins, said the order was only a "temporary and prudent response" to current threats of insider attacks and a week of mounting anger across the Muslim world over a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad.
"It will apply only until the threat level returns to a tolerable level," Collins said, adding that separate training missions would be unaffected.
So-called enabling missions, such as NATO helicopter support for Afghan troops and medical evacuations by air, would also be unaffected, Collins told Reuters.
But even a limited cutback is a major turnaround for NATO's core mission of a strong training role for the 350,000 members of the Afghan security forces. They will now have to cope with reduced support from the 100,000-strong NATO-led force backing the Afghan government against Taliban insurgents.
The White House said President Barack Obama's timing for handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces and eventually withdrawing U.S. troops were unchanged. "It doesn't affect the timeline," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
NATO SAYS STRATEGY UNCHANGED
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied the step showed that Taliban insurgents were dictating events in Afghanistan and also said the NATO strategy of gradually handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces was unchanged.
"We have said all along that we will take every step necessary to minimize the risks to our troops and that's what we are doing," he told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
At least 51 members of the NATO force have been killed this year in insider attacks, where Afghan police or soldiers turned their weapons on their Western mentors. That's a spike of more than 40 percent on similar incidents for the whole of 2011.
The order, which appeared to take several coalition members including Britain and Australia by surprise, was issued after weekend attacks by Afghan police in which six foreign soldiers were killed in the south, where the Taliban draws most support.
Australian troops, based in the southern province of Uruzgan, were seeking urgent clarification on how the change would be applied. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said the impact on British operations would be minimal.
NATO commanders said smaller joint operations could still be approved, but on a case-by-case basis in which junior commanders would have to set out measures to reduce the risk of attack by rogue Afghan soldiers or police.
The attacks have already prompted several coalition members, including France, to speed up or review plans to withdraw troops ahead of the 2014 timetable for most combat forces, as agreed by the Afghan government's Western backers.
Afghan commanders were not told of the order until Tuesday, in a hurried meeting with NATO counterparts. That underscored a scramble among coalition countries to contain the damage caused by insider attacks both on front-line troop morale and on fading support at home for the 11-year war.
The order to curtail joint operations would hobble support from NATO for Afghan military operations at a time when the Taliban were stepping up attacks, Afzal Aman, head of operations for the Afghan defense department, told Reuters.
On Friday, insurgents raided a major foreign force base, destroying more than $200 million worth of Harrier fighter jets.
"It will have a negative impact on our operations. Right now, foreign forces help us in air support, carrying our personnel, wounded and dead out of the battlefields, in logistics and training," Aman said.
The order still allows major joint operations above battalion size to take place, but these are less frequent than smaller platoon and squad-size missions mounted against small insurgent groups.
The scaling back of cooperation could also complicate tense negotiations between Washington and Kabul on a deal to keep some special forces and trainers in the country after 2014.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in KABUL, Peter Griffiths and Maria Golovnina in LONDON, David Alexander in BEIJING, Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON and Adrian Croft in BRUSSELS; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel, Sebastian Moffett and Pravin Char)