Britain’s senior commander in Helmand vowed last night that the killing of three British troops by a rogue Afghan soldier would strengthen resolve, as a manhunt was launched to find the assailant.
Dismissing any suggestion that the killings signalled a pattern of attacks against coalition forces by their Afghan partners, Brigadier Richard Felton said: “We have made significant progress throughout the summer, and this is not going to knock us off track. It is just going to make us more determined to work closer together.”
David Cameron moved swiftly to stave off a crisis of confidence after the gunman, possibly a member of a Taleban sleeper cell, attacked a joint British-Afghan patrol base in a rural part of central Helmand at 2.30am yesterday.
The Prime Minister blamed a “rogue element” in the Afghan Army and vowed that the military would not change the way that it worked with and trained local forces. The Taleban claimed that after the attack the soldier fled to an area that it controlled and had surrendered to the group. A joint British-Afghan investigation is under way to establish the facts.
“It’s absolutely essential that we don’t let this appalling incident change our strategy or our approach,” Mr Cameron said after speaking to President Karzai by telephone. He said that it was the “right thing” to continue building up the Afghan National Army (ANA).
“It’s when that happens that we will be able to bring our troops back home.” The Prime Minister has indicated that he wants the majority of Britain’s 10,000-strong force to leave within five years.
In a seemingly well-planned onslaught that lasted 15 minutes, the gunman fired a rocket-propelled grenade inside the operations room of Patrol Base 3, a pivo-tal part of the camp, where elements of the command team were located. He also sprayed gunfire at a tent where British troops from 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles Battle Group were sleeping. A hand grenade is also thought to have been used.
Scores of Afghan soldiers, who were stationed in an adjacent section on the base, rushed to help their British colleagues. As well as the dead, four British servicemen were wounded. There were apparently no witnesses to the attack, and its perpetrator — or perpetrators — disappeared into the night. The names of the dead are due to be released today.
By morning, there was a sense of disbelief at the base, a collection of tents and wooden structures, fortified by rock-filled barriers, built last year close to the village of Raheem Kalay, in a rural stretch of Nahr-e Saraj district. Brigadier Felton paid a visit, accompanied by the senior Afghan army officer and police official in Helmand.
“This is an aberration,” he told The Times. “Just seeing the shock and the embarrassment in the Afghan chain of command proves to me that this is a one-off.
“If this had insurgent motivation, then it is the insurgents trying to drive a wedge between us and our Afghan partners, because we are having a pretty significant success working together.”
The commander, who controls a smaller battle space than his predecessors after a surge of 20,000 American Marines across Helmand, said that working alongside the Afghan Army and police “is my tactical centre of gravity”.
In a sign of progress, a British-run police training centre in Helmand is expected to see the first class of non-commissioned police officers in the province graduate today as well as the 1,000th policeman.
The Afghan police have always had a worse reputation for corruption and infiltration than the army, making yesterday’s strike all the more alarming.
British officials said that the attack was the work of a lone renegade, believed to be a sergeant, but a senior Afghan commander in Helmand said that he thought the gunman was a Taleban infiltrator who became a soldier with a false identity. “I think he was appointed by the Taleban and he came to ANA with a different name.
“We have started investigation on this attack,” said General Sayed Molok Paktiawal, the 215 Corps Commander.
In Kabul, Lieutenant-General Nick Parker, the top British commander in the country, described the attack as “a really serious breach of trust”.
The shooting raised further questions about the integrity and capability of local forces. Britain and the US see a functioning police and army as the key benchmark for allowing coalition forces to leave.
Mr Cameron will discuss progress on training Afghan forces with President Obama next week when he visits the White House for the first time as Prime Minister.
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