Troops' deaths shatter trust in Helmand

[Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Capt. Tim Dirk is a member of Task Force Helmand.]

LASHKAR GAH, Helmand — No one knows what made him snap. Some say he was a Taliban infiltrator, others cite anger and frustration against British military tactics. But just after 3 p.m. on Nov. 3, a young police officer named Gulbuddin picked up a machine gun and killed five British soldiers, wounding another six. He then escaped, leaving both international and Afghans forces trying to piece together how and why such a thing could happen.

The shootings occurred in Nad Ali, a district of Helmand just 15 kilometers from the provincial capital, and the front line in the war with the Taliban.

British soldiers were relaxing with their Afghans colleagues, having just come back from patrol and eaten a meal. Suddenly Gulbuddin started firing in rapid bursts. He dropped the gun and escaped before the British had time to react.

“We do not know what triggered this,” said Haji Manan, the local commander in Nad Ali, the district where the incident occurred. “We were sitting at our checkpoint and we heard shooting. My deputy grabbed a gun a gun and rushed out. Gulbuddin knocked him down with his machine gun. I ran up to the roof and I was shot. But I rolled down off the roof, he thought I was dead. He shot the foreigners first, then us.”

No one knows exactly where Gulbuddin is now. A local Taliban commander said that the policeman had gone to them for refuge, and was now under the protection of the insurgents.

“After he killed the British soldiers he came to us,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We picked him up near a cemetery, just three kilometers away from the police checkpoint, in an area under our control. He has been taken away to an undisclosed location. We did not have ties with him before, but recently he started to open relations with us.”

A member of the local shura, or council, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR that the police were searching even behind the Taliban lines to find Gulbuddin.

“There are talks going on between tribal elders and the local Taliban to turn him over to the police,” said the man.

But most Helmandis think it is unlikely that the Taliban will give him up voluntarily.

“That boy is a hero,” said Khial Mohammad, a resident of Greshk. “The Taliban will treasure him like a flower.”

Gulbuddin was not an obvious risk, according to his colleagues. A graduate of the Helmand police academy, he had served with honor for two years in various districts of the province. He was a large man, and strong, with a reputation for fierceness in fighting the Taliban. His commander called him “trustworthy.”

Now they are trying to understand how it all could have gone so badly wrong.

“Gulbuddin was a soldier like me,” said Khairullah, one of the police who was wounded. “He did not have psychological problems, and he was not an addict. He was a disciplined policeman. Nobody knows why it happened.

A resident of Nad Ali who knew him well said that Gulbuddin was a fighter.

“He was a veteran of many battles against the Taliban,” said the man, who did not want to give his name. “He deserved medals. But he told me that whenever they had the Taliban pinned down the British would call them off. Maybe he was ready for a fight and his nerves just short-circuited.”

Capt. Tim Dirk, a member of Task Force Helmand, would not comment on British military tactics.

“I cannot possibly know what happens in the heat of battle, or second guess what decisions are made,” he said.

The Afghan police were shocked and ashamed by the mayhem.

“I cannot look anybody in the eye,” said a police officer in the ANP headquarters, in Lashkar Gah. “The British will not trust any of our soldiers after this. We killed people who were trying to help us.”

For now the British are saying that Gulbuddin was a “rogue policemen” and the Nad Ali shootings are an isolated tragedy, not part of a larger pattern.

But too many Helmandis are applauding the act rather than condemning it.

The years of war have made many Afghans angry and bitter against the foreign presence on their soil. Tensions between the British and the Afghans in Helmand are deep, and go back almost two centuries, to the three previous wars the British fought, and lost, on Afghan soil.

So it may not be surprising that Gulbuddin is being hailed as a hero in some circles.

“He is a good boy, and the parents that bore him should be proud,” said haji Gul Agha, another resident of Greshk. “He should be given a medal. Let the foreigners know the pain of losing your own people. Let them know how death smells.”

Civilian casualties are a major irritant in the relationship, and the day after the shooting a new incident triggered fresh outrage. The patience of many has snapped, and they see the deaths of the British soldiers as payback for the lives of innocent Afghan civilians.

“Let them know how tragic is the death of a son, a father or a brother,” said Abdul Majid, a resident of Greshk district in Helmand. “Just last night they bombed innocent people in Babaji. Didn’t they have fathers and mothers? They were just farmers, threshing corn, and they were killed on the spot. All their young sons are dead. I am sure they would welcome that soldier as a hero.”

According to the Helmand PRT, the incident Majid referred to occurred at about 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 4, when the international forces launched a rocket attack against people they believed to be insurgents.

“We killed nine individuals who were attempting to plant an IED (improvised explosive device),” Dark said. “I am not aware of any civilian casualties.”

But this version is not sitting well with Helmandis, who say that nine civilians were killed, including three children, as well as eight insurgents. A group of 60 tribal elders went to the PRT, the governor’s office, and to a local hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, to protest the attack, and according to media reports, they had the bodies of the civilians with them.

President Hamid Karzai has condemned the attack and called for an investigation.

Mohammad Ilyas Dayee contributed to this report.