Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Key role of 'Red Caps' in Afghanistan

From top left: Sergeant Simon Alexander Hamilton-Jewell; Corporal Russell Aston; Corporal Paul Graham Long; Corporal Simon Miller; Lance-Corporal Benjamin Hyde; Lance-Corporal Thomas Keys.
Six RMP soldiers died in Iraq in 2003 in a police station attack

The deaths of five British soldiers at the hands of a "rogue" Afghan policeman in Helmand Province have focused attention on the role British service personnel play in training local police in war and post-conflict areas.

Two of the soldiers who were killed were from the Royal Military Police (RMP), while the others were from the Grenadier Guards.

Training the Afghan police as well as the Afghan army is a key element of the Nato strategy in Afghanistan and the RMP, or "Red Caps", are at the centre of the British military's contribution to this goal.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said the RMP played an "important role" in Afghanistan assisting with police mentoring.

Initially this would involve "lower level military skills" such as basic weapons handling and awareness in the field, he said.

By working with [the local police] you're often strengthening the bonds, but in this case it seems to have gone tragically wrong
Amyas Godfrey, Royal United Services Institute

The focus would then be on teaching the Afghan police core skills such as gathering evidence, rather than leading complex investigations, he said.

Amyas Godfrey, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, described the RMP as "subject-matter experts".

As a small unit, he said the RMP would be responsible for advising the infantry on best practice.

In this case, the men had been working and living together in a compound at a national police checkpoint for the last two weeks.

Mr Godfrey, who served twice in Iraq where the RMP engaged in a similar role, said the focus would be on training the police "to certain standards, make sure they're following set procedures".

The former officer said this could involve simple things such as punctuality and making sure everyone was wearing the same uniform through to core policing work like weapons' handling, dealing with crowds, securing crime scenes and the treatment of prisoners.

He said that "by working with [the local police] you're often strengthening the bonds, but in this case it seems to have gone tragically wrong".

Dangerous work

In Iraq the RMP also suffered losses in the course of mentoring work.

In June 2003 six military policemen were killed by an angry mob while defending a police station in Al Majar al-Kabir, 120 miles north of Basra.

Only two months later, three more were shot dead as they made their way down a street in Basra.

The latest deaths in Afghanistan bring the number of RMP personnel who have died since the start of operations in 2001 to five.

Armed Afghan policeman
Training local police is a central part of Nato's strategy in Afghanistan

The loss of life underlines the dangers faced on operations and in post-conflict work.

In both Iraq and Kosovo the RMP was the only police force for a time. It was required to police the countries and then assist in the regeneration of the local forces.

Officers' expertise means they are often the first police on the ground in unstable areas but at a later stage they may be replaced by civilian officers.

Training local police is not their only role in conflict zones though.

Officers advise commanders on the movement of troops, with RMP traffic posts deployed along main routes to provide information about the progress of front line soldiers and supplies.

The RMP would also be responsible for handling prisoners of war.

There are over 1,800 regular and territorial personnel in the RMP who can deploy as part of the field army and members spend a large amount of time on exercise with the regular Army.

In the UK, where the majority of RMP personnel work, they carry out day-to-day police duties for the Army such as garrison policing.

Members can later choose one of two specialisations, either the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) or Close Protection (CP).

The SIB take on serious and protracted investigations both in garrison and on operations while CP involves bodyguard work for senior military personnel or the Foreign Office.

But, as in the case of Afghanistan, officers may also find themselves taking on a vital role in a war or post-conflict situation far removed from the investigative work they may be used to.

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