| Security officials search commuters at a checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, which has experienced an aggressive insurgent push. (AFP)
Kabul, June 28: 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.
The attack sent 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 American 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 American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The battle in Helmand is playing out as, about 2,414km to the west, Iraq is losing ground to an insurgent force that advanced in the shadow of the American 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 American forces have grown more violent as the Afghan military and the 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 American-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, 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 yesterday to assess the situation. The military has sent in reinforcements, though early reports from residents indicate that 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 Hajji Amanullah Khan, a 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 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.
Though 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 in Sangin, 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.