An Afghan soldier killed three British soldiers in volatile Helmand Province on Tuesday in an incident that is certain to raise public questions about the Afghan National Army at a time when the British public is increasingly skeptical about the nine-year-old war.
The incident took place in the district of Nahr-e-Saraj in northern Helmand, Afghanistan’s opium growing heartland and the site of the worst British losses in the war to date.
Three soldiers from the Royal Gurkha Rifles and four others were wounded when an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire with what early accounts said was a rocket-propelled grenade. Two of the dead were British nationals; the third was a Gurkha, the ethnic group from northern India and Nepal that supplies most of the regiment’s infantrymen.
This wasn't the first incident
This was at least the third time that British forces were deliberately shot at by an Afghan comrade. The previous incidents were in 2008 and 2009.
British forces have been in northern Helmand for most of the war. In the nearby district of Sangin, where British forces are currently withdrawing and handing over control to the US, they have lost 100 men.
Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of the war here earlier this month, warned about the impact on relations between Afghan forces and their NATO allies. "We have sacrificed greatly together, and we must ensure that the trust between our forces remains solid," he said in a statement.
The motives and mental state of the killer, who fled the scene, aren’t yet known. Was he mentally disturbed or suffering from combat stress? Was he a Taliban plant? Or someone who joined the Army to fight the Taliban, but later had a change of heart?
Attacks on comrades are not confined to Afghan soldiers. US Army Sergeant Hasan Akbar murdered two officers in Kuwait in 2003, and US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 comrades at Fort Hood in Texas last year.
Afghanistan's Army, a work in progress
Nevertheless the Afghan National Army, or ANA, remains very much a work in progress. Only about 14 percent of recruits are literate at induction and drug testing has been introduced to control marijuana and heroin use by troops. Pay for Afghan recruits was recently increased to $240 a month, but desertion remains high.
Col. Stewart Cowan, the British spokesman for the NATO training mission here, says the monthly desertion rate from the ANA averages about 1.2 percent. “Attrition is a challenge,” he says, while pointing out that the rate has fallen from a high of 4 percent a few years ago.
A program has also been started to prevent Afghan officers from taking a cut of their men’s pay. NATO is running a pilot program in which soldiers' pay is directly deposited into banks and their phones receive an instant message with a code for retrieving it. NATO expects the program to be rolled out more generally among Afghan soldiers soon.
Cowan said a US government report that criticized the readiness of Afghan forces released last month overstated ongoing problems. “[The US inspector general] wrote a good report, but it was a little bit out of date. A lot of concerns it mentioned had already been identified and are being addressed.”
He said raising the ratio of foreign trainers to Afghan troops has been effective. As evidence he pointed out that about 65 percent of Afghan troops are receiving passing grades on their marksmanship at the end of basic training now, up from 35 percent a year ago.
What does this mean for Britain?
How long the British and other NATO troops remain committed to the war here is another open question. The Dutch are pulling their combat troops out by the end of August, and the Canadians are scheduled to pull their troops out next year.
A BBC poll earlier this year found that 64 percent in Britain said they thought the war here is “unwinnable.” To many Britons, Prime Minister David Cameron’s target to sustain the war for at least five years seems far from assured, given the painful recession and a war that has cost the British taxpayer $16 billion so far.
Yet NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in London today to urge Britain to maintain an open-ended commitment to the Afghan war. Mr. Rasmussen is of the view that timetables encourage the Taliban.
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