A suicide bombing close to the police headquarters at Lashkar Gah killed 11 people, including a child, yesterday – just two weeks after control of security had been handed to the Afghan government because the area was deemed to safe and stable.
The attack on Helmand's provincial capital was the latest in a series carried out by the Taliban during its current summer offensive, which has led to dozens of deaths including that of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, and a number of Afghan civic and military leaders.
A number of the raids had been carried out by insurgents dressed as policemen and soldiers. Some witnesses said yesterday that a car had been allowed to approach the gate to the complex because the driver wore a uniform.
"There were some police cars coming out of the headquarters," Asiuddin, a vendor who owns a nearby stall, said. "Another one drove up very fast between them and there was an explosion; a few men were also running, but the bomb was in the car. Some people say the car was waiting for a long time before going forward, but no one picked it out."
The dead included a child and 10 policemen, according to Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand's provincial Governor, Gulab Mangal. In a statement on its website, the Taliban said the attack was carried out by "a hero of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan".
The bombing – at about 8.30am, just as police officers were arriving for work – was just a few hundred meters from the British military headquarters, sending reverberations though the camp and putting it on high alert.
Lashkar Gah was one of seven areas being put under Afghan government control in a transition process that is a key plank of the West's exit strategy from the war. The city, the centre of UK operations in Helmand, is the most symbolic and high-profile in the list and a potent target for the Taliban for propaganda value. A doctor at the hospital in Lashkar Gah said: "Families are coming to collect the bodies, one of which is of a young boy. Things were quiet for a while, but now we are getting more and more casualties coming in."
Nineteen people were killed when a bus they were travelling in from the town of Gereshk was hit by a roadside bomb on the road to Lashkar Gah last Thursday. Another 19 died in a co-ordinated attack on government buildings in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan.
Among Afghan security forces, the police in particular have come in for persistent criticism in the past for corruption and inefficiency. But British officials in Helmand insist that significant improvements have been made, a fact reflected in the overall reduction in violence.
Captain Gul Mohammed Khan, of the Afghan Local Police, a community force being raised to combat the Taliban, said: "We have been hearing rumours that they [the insurgents] were planning a big attack, but the information was that it would be away from Lashkar Gah maybe at a VCP (Vehicle Checkpoint). We do not believe the terrorist was a policeman. If he had police clothes, it was something he had stolen."
At the time of the Lashkar Gah handover, Brigadier Ed Davis, the commander of Britain's Task Force Helmand, said that one of the reasons the number of attacks had gone down was because the police were more effective.
Yesterday's attack took place as Admiral Mike Mullen, the head of the US military, said the scale of the pullout by US forces, by far the largest of the international contingents in Afghanistan, will hinge on whether the latest surge in attacks continues through the holy month of Ramadan, which starts today. As many as 1,000 police officers have died fighting insurgents over the past three years but recruitment is still strong for a monthly wage of just $300 (£180).