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Troops' deaths shatter trust in Helmand

Afghans and Brits alike fear that the deaths of 5 British troops at the hands of a police colleague have tipped an already tense working relationship into outright distrust.

A dust-covered Afghan National Army soldier with a flower tucked behind his ear rides on the back of a vehicle during a patrol near the Taliban stronghold of Panjwaii town, Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, Nov. 13, 2007. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

[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.”