Six Nato troops and eight women killed in Afghanistan - IRISH TIMES / GUARDIAN

Six Nato troops and eight women killed in Afghanistan

EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON in Kabul

IN A WEEKEND that highlighted the strains on the international mission in Afghanistan the Taliban mounted an audacious and deadly assault on the main British base in Helmand, six Nato troops were killed by Afghan allies, and an airstrike yesterday killed eight women who were out collecting pine nuts.

On Friday night an attack on Camp Bastion caught commanders by surprise, when a 15-strong suicide squad wearing US military uniforms and armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles punched through the wall of a base considered almost impregnable because of its isolated location and heavily fortified perimeter.

Inside, the attackers killed two US soldiers, destroyed six multi-million pound Harrier jets and three refuelling stations, “significantly damaged” two other jets, and hit six aircraft hangars.

Nato commanders often talk of the insurgency being weakened. In May, the top UK officer in Afghanistan, Lieut Gen Adrian Bradshaw, said the Taliban’s weapon supplies and financing were under pressure. “I would say that we have clear evidence that the momentum has been reversed,” he said.

But Friday’s sophisticated, destructive and high-profile assault served as a reminder of the resources and discipline of the Taliban, at a time when Nato troops are streaming home for good, sometimes at a rate of hundreds a day. The attack may even affect combat operations in the south, because there are now eight fewer aircraft to support troops spread out across Helmand.

“We couldn’t afford this loss,” a US marine aviation officer told the Long War Journal website.

Saturday morning brought a grim reminder of perhaps the most urgent challenge for the coalition, when an Afghan policeman faked an injury and then shot dead two British soldiers who came to his aid. The gunman had confessed suicidal thoughts to a colleague the night before, but was considered “very reliable”.

A few hours later, another policeman in nearby Zabul province called for US help at an isolated checkpoint. When the US troops arrived, he shot dead four and injured two. The attacker was killed, but six other policemen vanished with their weapons.

Afghan police and soldiers have this year killed 51 of the foreigners they train or fight alongside, accounting for nearly 15 per cent of all military deaths in Afghanistan, and the number of “insider attacks” is rising – 70 per cent more this year so far than in 2011.

Yesterday, a Nato airstrike in eastern Afghanistan killed eight women and injured seven, including a 10-year-old girl. Civilian casualties have been a flashpoint for criticism of the coalition inside Afghanistan.

Nato officials initially rejected claims of the deaths but later acknowledged that civilians had been killed and expressed their regret over the airstrike. They insisted known insurgents had been the target. “ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) takes full responsibility for this tragedy,” a statement said.

Villagers brought the bodies to the Laghman provincial capital.

“They were shouting ‘Death to America!’ They were condemning the attack,” said Laghman provincial government spokesman Sarhadi Zewak. Seven injured females were also taken to area hospitals for treatment, some of them as young as 10, said provincial health director Latif Qayumi. – (Guardian service/AP)