Taliban tightening hold in strategic southern Afghanistan


The Taliban Islamic movement in Afghanistan is expanding its control over a large area in the volatile southern province of Helmand. The battle has taken a heavy toll on government forces.

For the past three months, Musa Qala governor Mohammad Sharif Khan that his district was going to fall to the Taliban.

In May, he observed that three-fourths of the district in the southern province of Helmand was already under the Taliban control, and there was no government staff left in the district headquarters.

“The Taliban have better equipment than the police. We lost many police. Throughout the summer, at least one or two police checkpoints fell every week,” he told dpa this week.

Khan fled to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah after Musa Qala finally fell on August 26. He said he received no support from the government as the invaders surrounded the town for five days.

In 13 years of combat, the NATO-led foreign troops have suffered their highest number of fatalities in Helmand province. Since January, the Afghan national security forces have ceded most of the six districts of northern Helmand to the Taliban, one district at a time.

Afghan and NATO officials say the insurgents are trying to establish their “strategic headquarters” in the remote areas of northern Helmand, which is already under their control.

The district of Sangin fell in March. Afghan security forces launched a seven-week offensive and claimed victory, but the Taliban returned to to it the same week the operation ended.

Large parts of Gereshk district fell to the Taliban after the district police chief was killed by a roadside bomb in April. They took over Nawzad district in July.

“Musa Qala, Nawzad and Baghran districts are now under Taliban (control),” said Majid Akhundzada, a member of the Helmand provincial council.

“It seems the Taliban are trying to carve out a bigger zone of territorial continuity this fighting season, especially in northern Helmand,” said Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst for International Crisis Group.

“It will allow the Taliban to present themselves as the legitimate power,” he said, adding that the rebels had been “eating away areas that were under government control this fighting season, which adds to the political challenge for those of us interested in peace.”

The government will be hard-pressed to hold onto the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah, one NATO official said.

Since August 22, the US military has dropped some 24 bombs in Musa Qala, US General Philip Breedlove said Thursday, including six 2,000-pound bombs.

“The city centre and other places really don’t belong to either force now,” said Breedlove, the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.

“The district has been bombed for the past two weeks, resulting in 150 dead and more than 200 injured,” said Haji Abdul Razaq, a tribal elder from Musa Qala, who is now in neighboring Gereshk district.

Helmand legislator Nasima Niazi said at least 600 families have already been displaced by the latest fighting in Musa Qala.

“They have settled in parts of Gereshk and Lashkar Gah. We don’t know the exact situation in Musa Qala because it is inaccessible, and mobile phones are not working,” Niazi told dpa.

Razia Baluch, a provincial council member, said a large number of Taliban troops had massed in the northern districts with enough weapons and munitions to continue fighting for months.

The southern plains and the provincial capital will be threatened if the government fails to retake northern Helmand, she said.

The Afghan military has deployed 32,000 troops to the province, about 10 per cent of the national total, and the highest concentration outside of Kabul.

Analysts said one reason the guerrillas are focusing on the region is for the control of the narcotics business. Helmand is the country’s chief opium-producing region, with most of the cultivation and production taking place in the north.

“The (Musa Qala) district centre hosts a major drug bazaar at the heart of Helmand’s poppy production area,” said Thomas Ruttig, a German political scientist with the Afghan Analyst Network.

“If Helmand were an independent country, it still would be the largest opium producer in the world,”

The Taliban have kept mum about making northern Helmand their headquarters, they have touted the victory in Nawzad and Musa Qala as their “biggest achievement,” and the “strategic defeat” of Kabul.

In a recent Taliban video, the militants said they had seized “a lot of artillery and equipment,” during the capture of Musa Qala. It showed their fighters in the governor’s compound, the police headquarters and a former US base.

The fact that the US troops had to reengage in combat operations in those areas to try to reinforce the “puppet Afghan forces proves the importance of the victory,” the video narration said.