KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban have attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart.
The attacks have focused on the district of Sangin, historically an insurgent stronghold and one of the deadliest districts in the country for the U.S. and British forces who fought for years to secure it. The Taliban have mounted simultaneous attempts to conquer territory in the neighboring districts of Now Zad, Musa Qala and Kajaki. In the past week, more than 100 members of the Afghan forces and 50 civilians have been killed or wounded in fierce fighting, according to early estimates from local officials.
With a deepening political crisis in Kabul already casting the presidential election and long-term political stability into doubt, the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before U.S. troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The battle in Helmand is playing out as, about 1,500 miles to the west, Iraq is losing ground to an insurgent force that advanced in the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal there. The fear pulsing through Afghanistan is that it, too, could fall apart after the NATO-led military coalition departs in 2016.
Already, areas once heavily patrolled by U.S. forces have grown more violent as the Afghan military and police struggle to feed, fuel and equip themselves. The lackluster performance of the Afghan army so far in Helmand has also evoked comparisons with Iraq, raising questions about whether the U.S.-trained force can stand in the way of a Taliban resurgence.
Officials in Helmand say the answers may come soon enough. “The Taliban are trying to overrun several districts of northern Helmand and find a permanent sanctuary for themselves,” said Hajji Mohammad Sharif, district governor for Musa Qala. “From there, they pose threats to the southern parts of Helmand and also pose threats to Kandahar and Oruzgan provinces.”
Officials from the government and the international military coalition flew Friday to Helmand to assess the situation. The military has sent in reinforcements, although early reports from local residents indicate that those forces had made little headway in pushing back the Taliban. Police have fought ferociously to protect their areas and, in at least a few cases, succumbed only after running out of ammunition.
While the government claims that none of the checkpoints attacked by the Taliban have fallen, district elders and villagers say otherwise, characterizing the situation as approaching a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of residents are believed to have been displaced in the fighting.
“I see the people running everywhere with their women and children to take shelter,” said village elder Hajji Amanullah Khan. “It is like a doomsday for the people of Sangin. We do not have water, and there is a shortage of food. The price of everything has gone up because the highways and roads have been blocked for the last week.”
Northern Helmand is a small region with a history of troubles. Despite the recent Taliban gains, the area is far from lost. With its austere deserts interrupted by dense lines of foliage hugging the Sangin River, the Sangin district has long been marooned in a sea of Taliban support. It is also squarely in the heart of poppy country, a vital and growing source of income for the insurgents.
Although positioned at a significant crossroads into the northern Helmand area, with access to neighboring provinces, Sangin also carries great symbolic weight. The Taliban have repeatedly used the area to make a statement about the limits of Afghan and Western government strength, and local officials fear a similar approach now.
“The Taliban are planning to create problems in several northern Helmand districts to pave the way for their fighters to operate freely in the area and pose threats to Kandahar, Helmand and Farah Provinces,” said Muhammad Naim Baloch, the provincial governor in Helmand.
Only now, the task to secure the district has fallen exclusively to the Afghans, and it is providing an early test of the forces the international coalition has spent years training to take over the fight.
Last Saturday, as many as 600 Taliban insurgents stormed checkpoints through portions of Sangin, claiming wide tracts of land. On Sunday, the militants attacked the neighboring district of Now Zad. Violence erupted in Musa Qala on Monday, when the Taliban again stormed police checkpoints but were prevented from reaching the district center.
The assault on Sangin seems the most concerted. On Friday night, according to the district governor, the Taliban advanced on the district center itself. The army repelled the attack through the district bazaar, while the police stopped an attempted breach from the north. “Only the district center is under the control of government,” said Hajji Amir Jan, deputy chief of the Sangin district council.
Residents described a hellish scene for those trapped in the area. Some have started to question whether the fight, and its toll on the people, is even worth it. “If the government is unable to control and secure the lives of the ordinary people, I suggest they leave it to the Taliban,” said village elder Matiullah Khan in Sangin. “We are tired of the situation and would rather die than continue living in these severe conditions. It has been like this forever.”afghanistan - United States - North America - Asia - Kabul - Central Asia - Taliban - Afghan armed forces - Afghanistan government - Kandahar