By Sune Engel Rasmussen
Sources say US gunship bombed checkpoint just 30 minutes after police unit retook it from Taliban. A US gunship has killed at least 12 Afghan policemen in a friendly fire airstrike in Helmand, according to local officials.
The incident is a setback for the US-Afghan fight against the Taliban in the embattled province, and comes as the US administration and its Nato allies are preparing the deployment of several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan. Since 2001, Helmand has consistently been the deadliest province for both foreign and Afghan forces. Since the international drawdown in 2014, the Taliban has seized territory across the province, leaving the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and the economic hub, Gereshk, as some of the only areas still in government hands.
The attack occurred on Friday afternoon, when, according to local police sources, an Afghan police unit retook a checkpoint captured by the Taliban on Thursday. Due to apparent miscommunication, a US gunship bombed the police unit 30 minutes later, according to police sources. The spokesman to the provincial governor, Omar Zawak, said the number of killed and injured was not yet clear. Helmand’s police chief said 12 members of the Afghan National Security Forces died in the strike.
The incident followed a week of intensified US airstrikes in Helmand. The US air campaign in Afghanistan has reached a level not seen since 2012, when there were almost 10 times as many US troops in the country.
According to Bill Salvin, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, the US has conducted more than 50 airstrikes in the province over the past five days.
In June, the US surpassed the total number of aerial attacks in Afghanistan last year, with 1,634 airstrikes conducted primarily in the south – in and around Helmand – and against Islamic State groups in the east. Following Friday’s incident, the coalition forces said in a statement: “We can confirm local security personnel aligned with Afghan government forces were killed in an airstrike in Gereshk district in Helmand province late this afternoon.”
“During a US supported [Afghan defence forces] operation, aerial fires resulted in the deaths of the friendly Afghan forces who were gathered in a compound… An investigation will be conducted to determine the specific circumstances that led to this incident.”
The deaths in Helmand added to a particularly bloody day for the Afghan police.
In the northeastern Badakhshan province, the Taliban killed at least 32 members of the local police and government-aligned uprising groups in a push to capture Tagaq district. Some of the people killed were murdered after the Taliban surrounded a house they were staying in, while the rest were shot in an ambush, said Abdullah Naji Nazari, the head of the provincial council.