Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

What Drove Afghan Policeman to Kill UK Troops?

Western and Afghan forces try to find out why an otherwise normal young man snapped and killed men he had worked with for months.
By Aziz Ahmad
The young man’s name was Gulbuddin and he came from Musa Qala, in the northern part of Helmand. He was big and strong with a reputation for fierceness in fighting the Taleban. Gulbuddin was a graduate of the police academy, had served honourably for two years in the Afghan National Police in Helmand, and his commander describes him as trustworthy.



That was until the afternoon of November 3, when he suddenly took a machine gun and mowed down his British colleagues, killing five and wounding six others. Two Afghan police were also injured in the incident.



“We do not know what triggered this,” said Haji Manan, a police 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 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.”



In the bitter aftermath of the shootings, both western and Afghan forces are trying to piece together what could have motivated an otherwise normal young man to snap and kill men alongside whom he had served for months.



The killings reopened the debate in Britain about the country’s role in Afghanistan, where it has 9,000 troops and has lost 92 so far this year. The Times newspaper in a headline called the shooting “A Bloody Betrayal” and the Daily Mail asked “What Kind of War is This?”



The reasons for the deployment, which had wide public support when it began in 2001, have become confused, some people say. While the initial aim was to deal with the Taleban and al-Qaeda, politicians now talk about bringing peace and stability to the streets. There does not seem to be an exit strategy and the mounting death toll has hit public support.



Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said British troops must stay in Afghanistan until the country's own security forces are ready to take over.



"We do believe that the approach of partnering, mentoring and training has to be the right approach because it's about building Afghan capacity," he said. "We do not want our troops to be there forever and a day."



Some people in Helmand believe that Gulbuddin belonged to the Taleban and had infiltrated the police. Others think that he may have lost friends or family in the bombardments by foreign forces that have ratcheted up tensions between Afghans and western forces, especially in the south.



“Gulbuddin was a soldier like me,” said Khairullah, one of the wounded policemen. “He did not have psychological problems, and he was not a drug addict. He was a disciplined policeman. Nobody knows why it happened. We rushed out of our rooms and I was shot in the leg by a British soldier. It was hell, shots being fired everywhere.”



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



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



Gulbuddin fled the checkpoint where the shooting took place and a Taleban commander said that Gulbuddin was with them.



“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 kilometres 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 council, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR that the police were searching for Gulbuddin even behind the Taleban lines.



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



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



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



Shin Kalay, the village in Nad Ali where Gulbuddin staged his desperate act, is on the front line in the fight against the Taleban. The British soldiers and their Afghan police colleagues had been working and fighting side by side, and the police are now shocked and ashamed by their colleague’s action.



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



Musafer, a police officer with the counter-narcotics team, also expressed shame and embarrassment but he tried to find some rationale for what most see as just a random act of violence.



“Maybe Gulbuddin was offended by the British,” he said. “Sometimes the foreign soldiers insult the Afghan police. Sometimes they restrain them and will not let them shoot when they are in a battle with the enemy. When we ask why, the British just say ‘these are our rules’.”



Captain Tim Dark, a media liaison officer with the western forces’ Lashkar Gah Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, said that he could not comment on ground operations.



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



An Afghan police commander in Nad Ali praised the British soldiers with whom he had served, and said he could not understand why his colleague had done what he had.



“This group of British soldiers was with us in every single operation, and they were very brave,” he said. “They were better than us in fighting. But this policeman had been with us for two years, and had served in Chanjir, Bolan, and other districts in Helmand. He was not al-Qaeda or Taleban. I cannot understand why he did this.”



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



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



Civilian casualties are a major irritant in the relationship, and some Helmandis welcomed the news of British losses.



“[Gulbuddin] is a good boy, and the parents that bore him should be proud,” said Gul Agha, a 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.”



“Let them know how tragic is the death of a son, a father or a brother,” said Abdul Majid, another resident. “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 pm on November 4, when 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 does not sit 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 at the attack, and according to media reports, they had the bodies of the civilians with them.



Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee are IWPR reporters in Helmand province.