KABUL, Afghanistan -- Generating new anxieties about a key pillar of the Western exit strategy, an elite Afghan policeman opened fire on British troops, killing three of them, officials said Monday. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
The attack, which took place Sunday evening in Helmand province, was the most recent manifestation of what has become a pronounced trend: so-called green-on-blue shootings, in which Afghans turn their guns on Western mentors. More than two dozen such fatalities this year among the NATO force have eroded trust between international forces and their ostensible Afghan allies.
The NATO International Security Assistance Force confirmed the deaths of the three service members without specifying their nationalities, and said the incident was under investigation. Britain's Defense Ministry, in a statement on its website, said the three slain Britons had traveled to an Afghan police checkpoint in the Nahr-e-Saraj district to take part in a shura, or advisory council, and that an Afghan police officer opened fire as they were leaving.
The ministry identified two of those killed as members of the Welsh Guards and the third as being from the Royal Corps of Signals. The assailant was shot and wounded, said Kamaluddin Shirazi, Helmand's deputy police chief.
Afghan officials identified the shooter as a member of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, a special unit set up under U.S. auspices to help keep insurgents at bay and enforce the law in towns and villages. Its members undergo a more selective recruitment process and more rigorous training than regular Afghan police, adding to the disquiet surrounding the attack.
Green-on-blue shootings have begun to pose a potentially significant obstacle to the U.S. administration's strategy of training Afghan forces and largely handing over fighting duties to them in the course of the next year. This accelerated "transition" is at the heart of NATO's recently reaffirmed plan to end its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014.
Large swaths of the country have been designated as coming under Afghan security control, though Afghan forces still require extensive Western help, particularly with logistics, intelligence, air support and dealing with injuries in the field. The effectiveness of the Afghan police and army, while improving, remains compromised by illiteracy, drug use, sloppy vetting of recruits and vulnerability to infiltration.
NATO insists that only a small proportion of the attacks are carried out by attackers planted by the Taliban, but the phenomenon of enlistees carrying out attacks on their own due to arguments or personal feuds with Western counterparts is troubling as well, pointing to cultural differences that are extremely difficult to overcome.
Both military fatalities and Afghan civilian deaths have been climbing in recent weeks as the summer "fighting season" intensifies across Afghanistan, especially in the south and the east. However, Western troop deaths are at lower levels than at this time last year, and even lower when compared with those during the height of the U.S. troop surge of 2010.
American forces now number about 90,000, down from a high of more than 100,000, and troop strength is due to drop to 68,000 by the end of September.
With fewer major military offensives taking place compared with previous years, 39 NATO service members died last month, compared to 66 in June of 2011, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths. June 2010 was the most lethal month of the war for Western troops, with 103 NATO fatalities.
Western military commanders generally paint the falling fatality count as proof that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are weakening and cannot confront the NATO force head-on militarily. The Taliban movement, by contrast, generally depicts Western forces as becoming more timid, claiming that more of them are holing up on base as the drawdown proceeds.
-- Laura King and Hashmat Baktash