Thomas Harding and Andy Bloxham – Telegraph.co.uk Nov 4, 2009
Three Grenadier Guards and two Royal Military Police were attacked as they rested inside a compound.
The soldiers, who had removed their body armour and helmets, were shot by an Afghan national policeman who then fled. It is not known whether he was a member of the Taliban or being coerced by the insurgents.
The gunman is thought to go by the name Gulbuddin and is believed to have had an accomplice.
There are also suggestions that he had animosity towards his superiors after being repeatedly moved around the country as part of his duties.
He is now being hunted by British soldiers on the ground, thought to include special forces.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: "It's our understanding that one individual Afghan National Policeman, possibly in conjunction with another, went rogue.
"Initial reports suggest that it was a member of the Afghan National Police who fired without warning.
"The incident happened at a checkpoint and he fired before anyone could respond.
"His motives and whereabouts are unknown at this time. Every effort is now being put into hunting down those responsible for this attack."
Peter Galbraith, who left his post as deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan amid disagreements over the presidential elections, said it was "not surprising" that the Afghan police had been infiltrated by the Taliban.
He said: "They wanted to get more police boots on the ground in advance of the elections so there was a real rush to recruit an additional 10,000 police, particularly in the south, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
"So it is not totally surprising that people were recruited who may have had Taliban sympathies or were infiltrated into the police by the Taliban."
The incident is the single biggest loss of life in a gun battle since British forces began operations in 2001.
The troops are thought to include senior non-commissioned officers who had been living and training with local police for two weeks.
The latest casualties mean that 92 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. In 1982, 255 servicemen were killed in the Falklands War.
Four of the soldiers were killed instantly in the attack and another later died from his wounds
Two Afghan police are also believed to have been killed.
It will inevitably raise questions about Britain’s continued commitment to Afghanistan and whether there are sufficient troops and equipment to tackle the Taliban.
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, paid tribute to the soldiers describing their deaths as a "terrible loss".
He said: "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.
"I pay tribute to their courage, skill and determination. They will never be forgotten.
"It is my highest priority to ensure our heroic troops have the best possible support and equipment - and the right strategy, backed by our international partners, and by a new Afghan government ready to play its part in confronting the challenges Afghanistan faces."
The deaths come the day after president Hamid Karzai was re-elected, promising that he would stamp out corruption in all government departments, including the Interior Ministry that is responsible for the police.
His flawed election, which had been undermined by allegations of widespread fraud, throws into further question the idea of attempting to establish democracy in Afghanistan.
The Grenadier Guards, who have only been in the country for a matter of weeks, have been building contacts with the local security forces, considered vital to tackling the insurgency.
The group of soldiers went to a building in the town of Nadi Ali in central Helmand to meet senior Afghan officials, possibly to discuss forthcoming operations.
The soldiers went into a courtyard to a room where it is normal procedure to remove helmets and body armour during rest breaks.
The policeman then opened fire with what is understood to be an AK47, giving the soldiers no time to react.
Four of the soldiers were killed instantly in the attack and another later died from his wounds. It is understood that one of the dead was a senior figure within the battalion but was not an officer.
The attack is said to bear the hallmarks of the Haqqani network which has used similar tactics in the attack against the UN accommodation in Kabul killing five workers and Rawalpindi, Pakistan where terrorists were disguised as police. Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Pashtun based in north Waziristan, Pakistan, has been labelled as one of the most wanted Taliban by US forces with a $3 million reward on his head.
Training and mentoring the Afghan police and army is a focus of Nato-led efforts in Afghanistan. Gen Stanley McChrystal has said the police must grow more than three-fold in the coming years in order to allow international forces to begin to scale back in Afghanistan.
Afghan police are typically poorly educated and paid and are notorious for their corruptions. There are also persistent fears they are being infiltrated by the Taliban. The incident in Helmand province is the latest of several incidents in which Afghan police have killed international soldiers.
The deaths equal the previous worse loss of life in a single incident to enemy fire in recent years, which occurred in July when five members of 2 Bn The Rifles died in a series of linked bomb attacks in Sangin.
The previous worst year for fatalities in recent years was in 2007 when 89 troops were killed - 47 in Iraq and 42 in Afghanistan.
Thirty seven soldiers were killed and 150 injured in a six week period this summer when troops tried to establish security to allow the Afghan people to vote.
But following Operation Panther’s Claw, which cleared Taliban strongholds in central Helmand, only an estimated 150 people out of a possible total of 80,000 voted on polling day.
Questions have been raised about the Government’s strategy in Afghanistan amid outrage at the lack of equipment and troops.
In a leaked email sent weeks before his death, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, highlighted the chronic lack of helicopters to ferry his troops and the dangers the shortages posed.
It has also been disclosed that Gordon Brown had turned down military advice asking for troop increases from the current force of 9,000 to tackle the growing insurgency. Commanders argued that “more boots on the ground” would lead to better security and fewer casualties.
In an blog written shortly after the Grenadiers arrived in Afghanistan last month their commanding officer, Lt Col Roly Walker, said they would be based in a new area of operations which would be “demanding and dangerous”.
“The majority of the time will be spent out and about on patrol reassuring the local population, or on deliberate offensive operations to disrupt the insurgents.”
Last updated 05/11/2009