KABUL: 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 defences 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 US and British forces who fought for years to secure it. The Taliban have mounted simultaneous attempts to conquer territory in the neighbouring 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 US troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The battle in Helmand is playing out as, about 2,400km to the west, Iraq is losing ground to an insurgent force that advanced in the shadow of the US 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 US forces have grown more violent as the Afghan military and police struggle to feed, fuel and equip themselves. The lacklustre performance of the Afghan army so far in Helmand has also evoked comparisons with Iraq, raising questions about whether the US-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 Haji Mohammad Sharif, the 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 to Helmand on Friday to assess the situation. The military has sent in reinforcements, although early reports from local residents indicate those forces had made little headway in pushing the Taliban back. The 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, characterising 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 Haji Amanullah Khan, an village elder. “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 neighbouring 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 summer, Afghan forces got their first taste of what that fight would look like. Struggling to keep the Taliban at bay, they lost checkpoints, hard-fought ground and more than 120 men.
The government shuffled commanders, but it hardly mattered. By the end of the fighting season, the cowed Afghan army unit there was mostly unwilling to leave its base to confront the threat. Late last year, reports of a deal between a local army commander and the Taliban began to surface, driven in part by attrition rates of nearly 50 per cent and the near constant threat of death.
Given the debacle last summer, the military unpreparedness so far this year is all the more striking. Police officers ran out of ammunition, and in some cases bodies could not be recovered because of the fighting. Even though Helmand is the only province with an entire corps dedicated to it, the army has struggled to defend it.
The fighting this summer appears to be worse. In just one week, the security forces appear to have suffered almost half the casualties they suffered in all of last summer, though reports differ on the exact toll.
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 neighbouring 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 centre.
The assault on Sangin seems the most concerted. On Friday night, according to the district governor, the Taliban advanced on the district centre itself. The army repelled the attack through the district bazaar, while the police stopped an attempted breach from the north.
“Only the district centre is under the control of government,” said Haji Amir Jan, the deputy chief of the Sangin district council.
Although exact data is nearly impossible to obtain, in part because there is no longer a coalition footprint in the area, the extent of the attack offers a new perspective through which to view the Taliban’s ambitions, especially now that the militants no longer fear the dreaded US air support that has for years prevented them from massing in large groups.
Although the military denied any collusion between the army and the Taliban, those questions have started to re-emerge because most of the casualties have been suffered by the local and national police forces rather than by the army.
“The Taliban are not powerful enough to resist all of the Afghan forces,” Amir Jan said. “Sangin is not an easy district to control, and the Taliban have strong sanctuaries, but the Afghan National Army is just securing highways, and they are not really after the Taliban.”
Coalition officials were reluctant to comment on the battles in Helmand because the fight now belongs to the Afghans. The United Nations, however, urged caution and respect for the lives of civilians.
“The high number of civilians killed and injured in these ongoing military operations is deeply concerning,” said the secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubis.
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 Matiullah Khan, a village elder 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.”