In this image made from video, Wednesday Nov. 4, 2009, a casualty is unloaded into an ambulance before being taken to a base hospital in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, after five British soldiers were shot dead in an attack. The five soldiers, three from the Grenadier Guards and two from the Royal Military Police, were killed in the Nad-e’Ali district of Helmand Province on Nov. 3, where they were training and operating with Afghan security forces, when an Afghan policeman opened fire on them inside a checkpoint.
KABUL – An Afghan policeman opened fire on British soldiers in the volatile southern province of Helmand, killing five before fleeing, authorities said Wednesday, raising concerns about discipline within the Afghan forces and possible infiltration by insurgents.
The attack Tuesday afternoon came a month after an Afghan policeman on patrol with U.S. soldiers fired on the Americans, killing two. Training and operating jointly with Afghan police and soldiers is key to NATO’s strategy of dealing with the spreading Taliban-led insurgency and, ultimately, allowing international forces to leave Afghanistan.
Attacks such as these will heighten concern about the effectiveness of the Afghan forces.
Lt. Col. David Wakefield, spokesman for the British forces, told Sky News that the soldiers had been mentoring Afghan national police and had been working and living in the police checkpoint in Helmand’s Nad-e-Ali district.
“It is our initial understanding that an individual Afghan policeman possibly acting in conjunction with one other started firing inside the checkpoint before fleeing from the scene,” he said.
A Helmand police official said authorities searched through the night and on Wednesday for the attacker. He said the man had been working as a police officer in the area for three years, and had passed through a police academy in Kandahar. The official, who spoke on condition his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the situation, said it was unclear what his motives were.
The attacker was on the roof of a police checkpoint and opened fire on the British soldiers, who returned fire. Six other soldiers were wounded, as were two Afghan policemen, NATO forces headquarters in Kabul said in a statement.
NATO said the attack was being investigated by NATO forces and Afghan authorities.
The British fatalities were among the largest in a single incident in Afghanistan. They brought the total number of British forces who have died in Afghanistan to 229. Britain has 9,000 troops in the country, the second largest force after the United States. Last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to increase troop numbers by 500.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the main challenger to President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan’s recent fraud-marred election, said the continuing violence showed the Karzai administration had failed to bring peace to the country despite assistance from international forces.
“As far as the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is concerned, eight years of golden opportunity we have missed. You were here. Your soldiers were here, and they have made sacrifices for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan,” Abdullah said during a news conference in Kabul.
“But eight years down the road we still need more troops. In the absence of a credible and reliable and legitimate partner, more soldiers, more resources” are needed, he said.
Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said it was an isolated attack.
“These are incidents that can happen anywhere. The crazy man who has done this has also attacked the Afghan police,” he told the AP. “You can’t use this isolated incident to say that there is a problem with the police force of Afghanistan. In the U.S., people shoot up people in a shopping mall. There are crazy people everywhere.”
Karzai issued a statement condemning the killings and offering condolences to the people of Britain and the relatives of the soldiers.
The commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said he discussed the shooting with Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who “gave me his assurance that this incident will be fully and transparently investigated.”
“We will not let this event deter our resolve to building a partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces to provide for Afghanistan’s future,” he said in a joint statement issued by NATO forces and the ministry.
Atmar said the attack “appears to be an isolated incident.”
Last year, Afghan policemen twice attacked American soldiers in the space of about month. In October 2008, a policeman threw a grenade and opened fire on a U.S. foot patrol, killing one soldier, while in September, an officer opened fire at a Paktia police station, killing a soldier and wounding three before he was fatally shot.
Peter Galbraith, the former top American official at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan who had called attention to fraud charges in the country’s presidential election, told British radio that police training and recruiting had been “rushed” in Afghanistan.
“It is a terrible tragedy but it is, I won’t quite say inevitable, but it is not surprising,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“The process of police training and recruiting has been very rushed. Normally the police get an eight-week training course. That is actually very short and there isn’t a lot of vetting of police before they are hired.”
Such attacks have also occurred in Iraq, where U.S. and coalition forces are engaged in a similar process of mentoring and training the Iraqi army and police.
In February, two Iraqi policeman opened fire at a police outpost in northern Iraq, killing an American soldier and an interpreter and wounding three U.S. soldiers — the fourth attack since late 2007 with suspected links to Iraqi security units.
In London, Brown extended his condolences to the soldiers’ families.
“They fought to make Afghanistan more secure, but above all to make Britain safer from the terrorism and extremism which continues to threaten us from the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar, Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.
By ELENA BECATOROS
Nov. 04, 2009
Taliban Claims Attack That Killed 5 U.K. Soldiers, Brown Says
Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) — Five U.K. soldiers were killed in a shooting at an Afghan police base in Helmand province that Prime Minister Gordon Brown said was claimed by the Taliban.
Six other soldiers and two Afghan policemen were wounded when a gunman opened fire at the base in the Nad-e’Ali district yesterday. Initial military reports indicated the assailant may have been a “rogue” Afghan policeman.
“They were targeted because they were engaged in what our enemies fear most — they were mentoring and strengthening Afghan forces,” Brown told lawmakers today. “The Taliban have claimed responsibility so it may be that the Taliban used an Afghan police member or that they have infiltrated the police force.”
The deaths bring to 92 the number of U.K. service personnel who have died in Afghanistan so far this year, making 2009 the deadliest year for British troops since the 1982 Falklands war, when 255 died.
Pressure is mounting on Brown to justify the presence of the U.K. force in Afghanistan at a time when polls show a majority of Britons want the troops to come home. Brown has argued that bringing stability to Afghanistan and rooting out radical Islamists help protect the U.K. from terrorism.
“The death of five brave soldiers in a single incident is a terrible and tragic loss,” Brown said in Parliament. “I want to pay tribute, as the whole House will, to their professionalism, their courage and service.”
Lack of Helicopters
Opposition Conservatives and some former military officers accuse the government of failing to provide enough helicopters and vehicles to defeat the Taliban, the Islamist movement in Afghanistan that sheltered al-Qaeda until the regime was ousted by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper today, Kim Howells, who was minister with responsibility for Afghanistan until 2008 and now chairs the House of Commons Intelligence and Security committee, said the mission is failing.
Howells, a lawmaker in the ruling Labour Party who once backed the war, said Britain should withdraw its forces from Helmand and focus on domestic security.
“It would be better to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women and concentrate on using the money saved to secure our own borders, gather intelligence on terrorist activities inside Britain, expand our intelligence operations abroad, cooperate with foreign intelligence services, and counter the propaganda of those who encourage terrorism,” Howells said.
The gunman in yesterday’s attack and a possible accomplice escaped and a search is under way, Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, a military spokesman, told Sky News. Three of the dead soldiers were from the Grenadier Guards and two from the Royal Military Police, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. Their families have been informed, it added.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement that he has spoken to Afghan Interior Minister Haneef Atmar, who assured him there would be a full and “transparent” investigation.
“There is a deep sense of loss,” McChrystal said. “We will not let this event deter our resolve to build a partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces to provide for Afghanistan’s future.”
The soldiers were living and working in the compound as part of an assignment to train Afghan national police officers, Wakefield said.
Training Afghan police and soldiers is key to the NATO strategy for tackling the Taliban-led insurgency.
“We want to work with them, we want to train them and we want to mentor them. It is something we want to continue and strengthen in the months to come,” Brown said in Parliament. “The measure of success in Afghanistan will be that British forces can come home because Afghan forces can deal with the challenges themselves.”
There are 98,000 Afghan policemen in Afghanistan, Brown said. The attack at the Afghan police base underscores the need for increasing the quality of the force, he said, adding that he “wouldn’t want to draw conclusions from one single incident.”
Toll Since 2001
In total, 229 U.K. service personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001, including those who died in the compound. Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second biggest contingent after the U.S.
Yesterday’s deaths are the most for U.K. forces in a single incident since July, when five soldiers died in bombings in Sangin, a town in Helmand.
“It continues to be a difficult year in Afghanistan for our brave people who are operating in the most challenging area of the country,” Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said in an e- mailed statement. “We owe it to them to show the resolve that they exhibit every day.”
The shooting came a day after Hamid Karzai was declared Afghanistan’s president for a second term after challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, dropped out of a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7. The Aug. 20 first round was marred by fraud.
The previous worst year for U.K. military fatalities since the Falklands was in 2007, when 89 troops died, 47 of them in Iraq and 42 in Afghanistan.
By Caroline Alexander and Brian Lysaght
Last Updated: November 4, 2009 11:16 EST