Agencies/Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan
Afghan forces yesterday battled Taliban fighters who overran the district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand this week after reinforcements and Nato military advisers were rushed in to try to stop another district falling into insurgent hands.
Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai said fighting was going on in Sangin where government forces had been surrounded by insurgents who controlled most of the district including roads needed for reinforcements and supplies.
“The military is in position and the operation is ongoing,” Stanekzai told a news conference in Kabul, adding that reinforcements had arrived in the province to relieve troops in Sangin.
Government reinforcements began arriving in Sangin after food and ammunition were air-dropped to besieged Afghan forces, deputy Helmand governor Mohamed Jan Rasoolyar said yesterday.
“I am confident that we will not lose Sangin,” said Rasoolyar, just days after he warned that Helmand was teetering on the brink.
Provincial police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said the situation had improved since the beginning of the week but heavy fighting was continuing.
Although much attention has been focused on Sangin, fierce fighting has been underway across much of Helmand, a traditional stronghold of the Taliban and a major centre for opium that US and British troops fought for years to control.
“There is fighting here every day and whenever people come to the bazaar for shopping they get killed,” said shopkeeper Musa Khan, in Marjah district, near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
The crisis in Helmand has piled pressure on the government of President Ashraf Ghani, following the fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September, which Taliban fighters seized and held for several days.
Government forces have complained bitterly about being left without adequate supplies and reinforcements as well as with none of the air power that backed up Nato forces when they fought in the region.
Military advisers from Britain have joined other Nato advisers in Helmand to help Afghan forces who have struggled to contain the insurgency since foreign troops withdrew from combat operations last year.
Britain said a small contingent of its troops arrived in Camp Shorabak in Helmand to assist Afghan forces in an “advisory role”.
The deployment, in addition to a recent arrival of US special forces in the region, is the first since British troops ended their combat mission in Helmand in October 2014.
Nato officials say the troops sent to Helmand are not taking a direct part in combat and they have not confirmed reports that special forces were among the advisers. The Taliban said the reinforcements showed the government’s desperation.
“The Kabul administration cannot protect themselves without foreigners and the nation does not accept that,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for Taliban, said in a statement
On Sunday, the province’s deputy governor issued a highly unusual public plea via Facebook, warning that Helmand would fall unless immediate action were taken and urging Ghani, who visited Azerbaijan on Tuesday, to come to the province to see for himself.
But it is not the only province where the Taliban have made gains. On Wednesday, a spokesman said insurgents had captured the district of Gulistan in Farah, a remote western province that, like Helmand, is a major centre of opium cultivation.
However, district governor Asif Nang rejected the claim as “baseless”.
The latest unrest in Helmand comes as President Ashraf Ghani has made a diplomatic outreach to Pakistan aimed at restarting peace talks with the insurgents.
Pakistan hosted a first round of negotiations in July but the talks stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.
A security official in Islamabad said that Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif would travel to Kabul in the coming days, in what appears to be a renewed push to jumpstart talks.
President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedalling on previous plans to reduce the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.
Underscoring the grim security situation, a Taliban suicide bomber on Monday killed six US soldiers near Kabul, in one of the deadliest attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan this year.
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