Taliban militants crept through groves of grape vines and pomegranate trees to launch a surprise assault Monday, killing 11 policemen sleeping on a mud floor in southern Afghanistan.
The midnight attack at a small police outpost 15 miles north of Kandahar — the Taliban's former stronghold — was the latest assault against the vulnerable police force.
Insurgents sneaked up on the police checkpoint, killing an officer on the roof of the compound who was supposed to be keeping watch but who may have fallen asleep, said Mohammad Rauf, a policeman sent as a replacement.
The attackers walked into the mud-brick compound and opened fire on officers sleeping on simple mattresses and blankets on the dirt floor, Rauf said.
Of the 12 officers at the compound, 11 were killed and one was seriously wounded, Rauf said.
After the attack, the compound, which is on the road leading from Kandahar to Uruzgan province, was filled with bloodstained blankets and the black shoes the police took off before they went to sleep.
The latest in a string of attacks
The ambush was the latest in a string of recent attacks on police in the south. Eight policemen were killed Saturday — four while destroying opium poppies in Kandahar and four who were manning a checkpoint in Helmand. Seven police on the poppy-eradication force were killed April 7 in Kandahar.
Militants killed more than 925 Afghan police last year — more than 10 percent of the country's 8,000 insurgency-related deaths documented by the U.N.
The U.S. has spent about $4 billion to train and equip police over the last three years. Washington gave Afghan police 76,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 56,000 pistols and 3,500 vehicles last year, said Lt. Col. David Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. military group overseeing police and army training.
This year, the U.S. began a district-level training program officials hope will improve police capabilities. The international community is banking on improvements in the Afghan army and police so Afghanistan can to take over its security, allowing international forces to withdraw.
Easy target for the Taliban
Still, the Taliban find the police an inviting target. They have less training and less firepower than the Afghan army or NATO soldiers. They also tend to work in small teams in remote areas where they can easily be overwhelmed by a small insurgent force.
Taliban militants often suffer devastating losses when they attack U.S. or NATO forces that have been stationed in the country since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.
They have also largely abandoned ambush attempts against the increasingly capable Afghan army.
"The Taliban are going to attack those who they deem most vulnerable," Johnson said. "They're out there in the community, policing, protecting and serving, and unfortunately they are vulnerable."
Jahi Karim Jan Agha said he could hear the burst of gunfire from his nearby home, which sits in a region filled with pomegranate orchards and grape fields, all good cover for militants. An hour after the gunfire stopped, he and some neighbors went to investigate, and found the slain police.
"I'm very upset about this. Even though they are police, they are Afghans," he said. "These policemen are fathers, they have a wife, they have parents."
Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said two Royal Air Force servicemen were killed Sunday when their vehicle hit an explosive device. Most British troops are stationed in Helmand.
On the border crossing at Spin Boldak, one Afghan border policeman was killed and two wounded after Afghan and Pakistan border guards got into a gunbattle over three wheat trucks, said Afghan border police commander Bismullah Khan. Two Pakistani soldiers were wounded, a Pakistan official said.
Wheat prices have risen in the last several months, and Pakistan has restricted how much wheat can be shipped into Afghanistan. The three wheat trucks had crossed into Afghanistan, and Pakistan soldiers chased them, Khan said.