There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting, but suspicion fell on insurgents, who for months have waged a systematic campaign of assassinations in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province. The killings, which often target influential local figures, are apparently meant to erode public trust in the central government and the Afghan police and army.
The slain elder, Haji Fazel Mohammad, was a member of the local council in Sangin district, which in recent years was the scene of successive offensives by British troops and then U.S. Marines. Both forces took extremely heavy casualties during their military campaigns there. Residents say the Taliban has lately been reappearing in the district, which is a key crossroads for weapons smuggling and drug trafficking.
Sangin lies close to three other Helmand districts that were handed over late last month to Afghan security control: Marjah, Nawa and Nad Ali. In all three, villagers have expressed doubt that the Afghan police and army -- unlike the Western troops who drove the Taliban from the area in 2010 -- would be able to keep them safe.
Western forces are to end their combat role in Afghanistan in 2014, and by then, the Afghan police and army are to have taken the lead in safeguarding the country. By this summer, areas in which more than half the population lives are to be under Afghan security control, including some districts and provinces where Taliban fighters still have a strong presence.
-- Laura King
Photo: An Afghan police officer mans a checkpoint covered with snow near Kabul. Credit: S. Sabawoon / EPA