Taliban militants have attacked a police base in southern Afghanistan with a car bomb, rockets and machine-gun fire, killing three NATO soldiers and five civilians, officials said yesterday.
The brazen attack followed the killing of three British troops by a rogue Afghan soldier, an incident that has underscored concerns over efforts to build up the local army, a cornerstone of the US-led war strategy.
Rebels set off an explosives-laden car before firing rockets and small arms on the police base in the southern province of Kandahar on Tuesday evening.
Afghan police backed by international forces fought back “and prevented insurgents from penetrating the compound perimeter,” NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
ISAF did not reveal the nationalities of the troops, whose deaths bring to at least 360 the number of NATO fatalities in the conflict so far this year.
Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the Kandahar government, said the car bomb was set off by a suicide bomber, adding that several other insurgents attacked the base with rockets and machine-gun fire for more than 20 minutes.
The incident came on the heels of the killing on Tuesday by a renegade soldier of three members of a British Gurkha battalion on a base in the neighboring province of Helmand, one of the most restive areas in the country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan army chief have vowed a full investigation.
Britain, the main US ally in the war against the Taliban, said it would not alter its strategy in working with local forces, which is key in enabling them to take over security and allow for an eventual exit for US-led troops.
“The most important thing is that we are going to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with our Afghan partners,” ISAF spokesman US Lieutenant Colonol John Dorrian said.
“It is an horrific event and we will bring those responsible to justice,” he said.
“In the meantime we are going to continue to partner with the Afghan national security forces — we have a common enemy and we are going to keep going,” he added.
Officials of NATO’s Training Mission-Afghanistan — costing more than US$10 billion, mostly from US coffers — say they aimed to recruit and train 171,000 soldiers and 134,000 police officers.
Current figures are around 115,000 in the army and 104,000 in the police. Illiteracy, desertion and drug addiction are widespread problems.
“It’s a game of patience,” a Western military official said.
Afghanistan’s ability to take over responsibility for securing its borders and quelling insurgency is seen as vital to Western plans to end engagement in a war NATO and its allies have been fighting since 2001.
“There is no alternative to training a strong Afghan army and security force which can replace foreign troops in the long run,” political analyst Mohammad Younus Fakur said.
“The enemy will try to use this [attacks on Western military] as a permanent tactic to create mistrust among forces who fight alongside each other, and that could be disastrous for the friendly forces,” he said.
There have been fears that as the war loses ground with the Western public, pressure to reach quotas will override quality.
British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed his troops would not change the way they work with the local military despite the attack.
Britain has about 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, and Cameron has signalled he would like to see combat troops withdraw within five years.
The US and NATO have 143,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the number due to rise to 150,000 in coming weeks as international forces step up their campaign against the Taliban.
Military officials said the three dead soldiers were from a Gurkha battalion, whose troops are drawn from Nepal, but have not given details on their nationalities. Several more were also wounded in the attack.
US General David Petraeus, who assumed command of NATO troops this month, said it was vital to ensure that the trust between Afghan and international forces “remains solid in order to defeat our common enemies.”
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