Posts Tagged ‘Helmand province’

Taliban Kill District Police Chief in Southern Afghanistan — 3 Police Chiefs Are Killed in a Month in Nearby Ghazni Province

September 24, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan official says the Taliban have killed a district police chief in the southern Helmand province.

Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the provincial governor, says the officer was killed late Saturday when gunmen attacked his vehicle during a patrol. Another police officer was wounded.

The Taliban, who have stepped up their attacks against security forces in recent years, claimed responsibility.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The police chief of a volatile Afghanistan district was killed by a roadside bomb on Thursday, officials said, just two weeks after taking over for his predecessor, who was killed in the same manner.

It was the third such killing of a security chief in the district — Jaghatu, in southeastern Afghanistan — in about a month, underscoring the continuing high casualties Afghan forces are suffering in defending against a resurgent Taliban. Their predecessor was killed in a Taliban ambush.

Although Afghan security forces have denied the Taliban major victories in recent months, bloody local skirmishes continue, and military officials say the country’s forces are engaged in fighting in 20 of the country’s 34 provinces.

The government does not release official casualty tallies of its forces, but senior officials say this year’s figures have matched, and at times exceeded, the record numbers for 2016, when about 6,300 members of Afghan forces were killed and close to 12,500 were wounded.

The Jaghatu District police chief, Mera Jan Jafari, was killed by a roadside bomb while traveling to the Mohmand Pass area to set up a checkpoint, said Mohammed Arif Noori, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni Province, where Jaghatu is located.

“This is a concern for us, and we will investigate what is the reason that Taliban can easily kill a commander,” Mr. Noori said. “We have heard that some people help the Taliban, but that isn’t proved yet.”

The Taliban have long controlled Nawa District in Ghazni and parts of at least five other districts in the province, local officials said, and regularly use those areas to launch attacks on suburbs of the provincial capital.

“Ghazni has 18 districts, and 2,600 police is not enough for such a province,” said Amanullah Kamran, a member of the provincial council.

“In Ghazni, army forces are not active — most of the operations have been done by police and uprising forces,” he said, referring to local residents who are armed and paid by the government as an irregular militia force.

Jaghatu, with a population of about 70,000, is secured by just 100 police officers and about 80 “uprisers,” said Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, a member of Ghazni provincial council.

The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, said that his army had been overhauled and that it had improved enough to quickly recapture districts taken over by the Taliban.

But the police are struggling to retain control of these areas, and are often a soft target for the Taliban, who are more heavily armed. “Our problem has been holding — because our police is not substantially reformed and is not at the capacity,” Mr. Ghani told a gathering at the Asia Society in New York.

Mr. Ghani’s government is considering forming a new local force, under the regional army’s command, that will be able to hold the areas cleared by the regular army — a proposal that has raised concerns among human rights activists because of the country’s history of military abuses.

Although the level of violence has persisted in recent weeks, senior Afghan officials say an increase in American airstrikes since President Trump announced his new strategy for the country has helped their forces fend off Taliban advances and avoid any major victories for the group, which last year overtook several districts and the city Kunduz.

So far this year, the United States has dropped nearly twice as many munitions in Afghanistan as it did during all of 2016. In August alone, American forces dropped more than 500.

The increase in airstrikes has also led to multiple instances of civilian casualties.

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Afghan police search for villagers after mass kidnapping

July 23, 2017

AFP

© AFP | An Afghan policeman stands guard amid an ongoing battle with Taliban militants in the Gereshk district of Helmand province on July 22, 2017

KANDAHAR (AFGHANISTAN) (AFP) – Afghan police on Sunday launched a search for some 30 villagers still missing two days after a mass kidnapping blamed on Taliban militants in the southern province of Kandahar.

Seventy people were abducted Friday from their village along the main road in the south and seven of them were found dead the following day alongside the highway, from the city of Kandahar to Tarinkot in Uruzgan province.

Around 30 people have been released while 30 others remain missing, Kandahar police spokesman Zia Durrani told AFP.

It remained unclear why the villagers were seized. But some officials said they suspected the Taliban had kidnapped or killed them for suspected cooperation with the Western-backed government which the militants are striving to topple.

The insurgents have a heavy presence in Uruzgan, a poppy-growing area.

On Sunday they denied involvement, while confirming they had attacked police checkpoints in the area.

“Our mujahideen killed a number of local police and pro-government militias there, also capturing 17 suspects who were later released after interrogation. We have not killed or kidnapped any civilians,” the Taliban said in a statement.

Civilians are increasingly caught in the crosshairs of Afghanistan’s worsening conflict as the Taliban step up their annual spring offensive launched in April.

Highways passing through insurgency-prone areas have become exceedingly dangerous, with the Taliban and other armed groups frequently kidnapping or killing travellers.

In July Taliban fighters closed a highway connecting Farah to Herat city in the west, stopping a bus and forcing 16 passengers off it. They shot at least seven of them while the remainder were taken hostage.

Elsewhere in the country, the Taliban on Sunday captured a district in the northern province of Faryab after an overnight attack that triggered hours of heavy fighting, said provincial police spokesman Abdul Karim Yourish.

He said troops had retreated two kilometres from the centre of Kohistan district. There was no word on casualties.

Local media on Sunday also reported that the Taliban had overran Taywara district in the central province of Ghor, though there was no immediate official confirmation.

There has been a surge in fighting in several northern and southern Afghan provinces in recent days, including in Helmand in the south where 16 Afghan police officers were killed by a US air strike on Friday night.

The strike, the latest setback in Washington’s efforts to pacify the country, hit a compound in Gereshk district, large parts of which are under Taliban control.

Afghan troops and police are battling largely alone on the ground against the insurgency, after US-led foreign forces withdrew from most combat operations in December 2014.

The United States is actively considering sending more troops to Afghanistan and US commanders there have requested thousands of extra soldiers on the ground.

The US contingent now numbers about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers.

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Trump gives U.S. military authority to set Afghan troop levels: U.S. official

June 14, 2017

Reuters

Tue Jun 13, 2017 | 9:19pm EDT

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali | WASHINGTON

U.S. President Donald Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday, opening the door for future troop increases requested by the U.S. commander.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no immediate decision had been made about the troop levels, which are now set at about 8,400.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

The decision is similar to one announced in April that applied to U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria, and came as Mattis warned Congress the U.S.-backed Afghan forces were not beating the Taliban despite more than 15 years of war.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Tuesday. “And we will correct this as soon as possible.”

Mattis said the Taliban were “surging” at the moment, something he said he intended to address.

A former U.S. official said such a decision might allow the White House to argue that it was not micromanaging as much as the administration of former President Barack Obama was sometimes accused of doing.

Critics say delegating too much authority to the military does not shield Trump from political responsibility during battlefield setbacks and could reduce the chances for diplomats to warn of potential blowback from military decisions.

It has been four months since Army General John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said he needed “a few thousand” additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.

Current and former U.S. officials say discussions revolve around adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Those forces are expected to be largely comprised of trainers to support Afghan forces, as well as air crews.

Deliberations include giving more authority to forces on the ground and taking more aggressive action against Taliban fighters.

Some U.S. officials have questioned the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan because any politically palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the war began in 2001.

Any increase of several thousand troops would leave American forces in Afghanistan well below their 2011 peak of more than 100,000 troops.

The Afghan government was assessed by the U.S. military to control or influence just 59.7 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts as of Feb. 20, a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

A truck bomb explosion in Kabul last month killed more than 150 people, making it the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a NATO-led coalition after ruling the country for five years.

On Saturday, three U.S. soldiers were killed when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in eastern Afghanistan.

The broader regional U.S. strategy for Afghanistan remains unclear. Mattis promised on Tuesday to brief lawmakers on a new war strategy by mid-July that is widely expected to call for thousands more U.S. troops.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, pressed Mattis on the deteriorating situation during the Tuesday hearing, saying the United States had an urgent need for “a change in strategy, and an increase in resources if we are to turn the situation around.”

“We recognize the need for urgency,” Mattis said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott.; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bill Trott)

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Suicide Bomber Kills 9 Rival Insurgents in Afghanistan As U.S. President Trump Gives Defense Secretary Mattis Authority To Set Troop Levels for Afghanistan

June 14, 2017

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — An Afghan official says a suicide bomber targeted a checkpoint run by rival insurgents in the southern Helmand province, killing nine of them.

Mohammad Saleem Rohdi, chief of the Gareshk district, says six other militants from a breakaway Taliban faction were wounded in the attack early Wednesday.

Taliban spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.

Rival Taliban factions have clashed in the past, with the supporters of Mullah Rasoul, a commander in Helmand, contesting the overall leadership of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

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Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump Gives Defense Secretary Mattis Authority To Set Troop Levels for Afghanistan

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday, opening the door for future troop increases requested by the U.S. commander.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no immediate decision had been made about the troop levels, which are now set at about 8,400.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

The decision is similar to one announced in April that applied to U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria, and came as Mattis warned Congress the U.S.-backed Afghan forces were not beating the Taliban despite more than 15 years of war.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Tuesday. “And we will correct this as soon as possible.”

Mattis said the Taliban were “surging” at the moment, something he said he intended to address.

A former U.S. official said such a decision might allow the White House to argue that it was not micromanaging as much as the administration of former President Barack Obama was sometimes accused of doing.

Critics say delegating too much authority to the military does not shield Trump from political responsibility during battlefield setbacks and could reduce the chances for diplomats to warn of potential blowback from military decisions.

It has been four months since Army General John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said he needed “a few thousand” additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.

Current and former U.S. officials say discussions revolve around adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Those forces are expected to be largely comprised of trainers to support Afghan forces, as well as air crews.

Deliberations include giving more authority to forces on the ground and taking more aggressive action against Taliban fighters.

Some U.S. officials have questioned the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan because any politically palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the war began in 2001.

Any increase of several thousand troops would leave American forces in Afghanistan well below their 2011 peak of more than 100,000 troops.

The Afghan government was assessed by the U.S. military to control or influence just 59.7 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts as of Feb. 20, a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

A truck bomb explosion in Kabul last month killed more than 150 people, making it the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a NATO-led coalition after ruling the country for five years.

On Saturday, three U.S. soldiers were killed when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in eastern Afghanistan.

The broader regional U.S. strategy for Afghanistan remains unclear. Mattis promised on Tuesday to brief lawmakers on a new war strategy by mid-July that is widely expected to call for thousands more U.S. troops.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, pressed Mattis on the deteriorating situation during the Tuesday hearing, saying the United States had an urgent need for “a change in strategy, and an increase in resources if we are to turn the situation around.”

“We recognize the need for urgency,” Mattis said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott.; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bill Trott)

U.S. Defense Secretary in Afghanistan as U.S. Looks to Craft Policy

April 24, 2017

KABUL — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan on Monday as President Donald Trump’s administration looks to construct its strategy for the war-torn country, where resurgent Taliban militants continue to make gains.

Mattis is expected to meet Afghan officials and U.S. troops while in Kabul, but his arrival coincided with an announcement that his Afghan counterpart, Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi, and the Afghan army chief of staff had resigned after more than 140 Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack last week.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Mattis in Afghanistan to discuss war needs

By Robert Burns

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived unannounced in Afghanistan on Monday to assess America’s longest war as the Trump administration weighs sending more troops.

Kabul was the final stop on a six-nation, weeklong tour Mattis said was intended to bolster relations with allies and partners and to get an update on the stalemated conflict in Afghanistan. He is the first member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to visit Afghanistan.

Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Kabul, recently told Congress that he needs a few thousand more troops to keep Afghan security forces on track to eventually handling the Taliban insurgency on their own.

As part of the administration’s review of Afghan policy, Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited Kabul last week to consult with Nicholson and with Afghan officials.

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Haneef Atmar, national security adviser to the president of Afghanistan, welcomes Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the U.S. National Security Adviser, to talks in Kabul about the country’s security situation, Sunday, April 16, 2017.  NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO THE AFGHAN PRESIDENT, VIA TWITTER

McMaster said in a TV interview after returning to Washington that the U.S. in recent years has scaled back its military effort against the Taliban. “Our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts, and it’s time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond,” he said.

Among the questions facing the administration is how to maintain pressure on a resilient Taliban and keep up counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan without prolonging a stalemate that is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars a year.

The war began in October 2001. The U.S. has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.

Mattis was visiting just days after a bloody Taliban attack that killed more than 100 Afghans on a base in the country’s north. The Taliban also controls key parts of Helmand province in the south. Officials say nearly a dozen of the attackers wore army uniforms and rode in military vehicles, raising concerns of help from inside the compound.

Afghan officials said earlier that the country’s army chief and the defense minister resigned following the weekend Taliban attack. The officials said that President Ashraf Ghani accepted the resignations on Monday. It was not immediately clear who would replace Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim.

Two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The president’s official Twitter account also confirmed the resignations.

In addition to the Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan also is fighting to extinguish a small but troublesome presence in Nangarhar province of militants affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Two weeks ago, Nicholson created a stir by ordering an attack on an IS stronghold in Nangarhar using the military’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, the so-called “mother of all bombs.”

Mattis has declined to disclose details of damage done by that bombing, which former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called an “atrocity.”

US Marines to return to Afghanistan’s Helmand province

January 7, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | US Marines left Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2014 as NATO withdrew its forces and let Afghan troops lead the fight against the Taliban

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Some 300 US Marines will head to Helmand province in Afghanistan this spring to help a NATO-led mission to train Afghan forces, the Marines said.

The move puts Marines back in Helmand, who left in 2014 as NATO withdrew its forces and let Afghan troops lead the fight against the Taliban.

They were among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States. Several thousand were deployed in Helmand, an opium-producing region, where they engaged in bitter combat with the Taliban insurgency.

The administration of outgoing President Barack Obama had hoped to withdraw most US military forces from Afghanistan by now, leaving behind just a small force.

But the United States still has some 8,400 military personnel in the country, and is now returning the Marines to Helmand.

At the request of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the US forces in Afghanistan, “approximately 300 Marines will deploy to Helmand Province Afghanistan in Spring 2017 in support of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission,” a statement from the Marine Corps said.

The Marines “will train and advise key leaders within the Afghan National Army 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police,” it added.

“Advising and assisting Afghan defense and security forces will assist in preserving gains made together with the Afghans.”

The Afghan army and police are struggling in their struggle against a resurgent Taliban.

In early December General John Nicholson, the chief US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that Kabul directly controls about 64 percent of the country’s population of 30 million, down slightly from 68 percent earlier in 2016.

He said that the Taliban have been especially active in Helmand province and are working opium with traffickers.

“There’s a nexus here between the insurgency and criminal networks that’s occurring in Helmand that makes Helmand such a difficult fight,” he added.

Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest opium producer. The UN estimates 2016 production at 4,800 to 6,000 tons, up sharply from 3,300 tons in 2015, while cultivated areas have increased by 10 percent in one year.

Taliban Leaders Move back To Afghanistan from Pakistan — Some experts see growing Taliban confidence in their fight against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul

November 26, 2016

By 

NOV. 26, 2016, 2:48 A.M. E.S.T.

KABUL, Afghanistan — After operating out of Pakistan for more than a decade, the leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement may have moved back to their homeland to try to build on this year’s gains in the war and to establish a permanent presence.

If confirmed, the move would be a sign of the Taliban’s confidence in their fight against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. It could also be an attempt by the militants to distance themselves from Pakistan, which is accused of supporting the movement.

The Taliban’s leaders have been based in Pakistani cities, including Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, since their rule in Afghanistan was overthrown in the 2001 U.S. invasion after the 9/11 attacks.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the leadership shura, or council, relocated to Afghanistan “some months ago,” although he would not say to where.

One Taliban official said the shura had moved to southern Helmand province, which the insurgents consider to be part of their heartland and where most of the opium that funds their operations is produced. The official refused to be identified because of security reasons.

Taliban’s official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid

Other Taliban sources said the justice, recruitment and religious councils had also moved to southern Afghanistan. The statements could not be independently confirmed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said it had no confirmation that any such move had taken place.

“No intelligence confirms that the Taliban has shifted its shura to Afghanistan,” said Haroon Chakhansuri, Ghani’s spokesman. “We still believe they are still operating in their safe havens outside Afghanistan.”

Mujahid, however, said Kabul officials were aware of the moves, prompted by battlefield gains that the insurgents believed would put them in a strong position once talks with the Afghan government aimed at ending the war were restarted. Dialogue broke down earlier this year.

The insurgents have spread their footprint across Afghanistan since international combat troops scaled down in 2014. They have maintained multiple offensives and threatened at least three provincial capitals in recent months: Kunduz, in northern Kunduz province; Lashkah Gar, in Helmand in the south; and Tirin Kot in Uruzgan.

The U.S. military has conceded the insurgents have gained ground, although definitive breakdowns are difficult to verify. This year, Afghan security forces are believed to have suffered their worst losses since 2001, with the military estimating 2016 fatalities at more than 5,000 so far.

A permanent Taliban presence in Afghanistan would send a message to followers and fighters that the insurgents now control so much territory they can no longer be dislodged by government security forces, said Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s ambassador in Kabul.

He said he has not confirmed the reports, which have circulated for weeks. But such a move could also be part of “the Taliban’s attempt to try to create a more independent position,” he said, as “parts of the Taliban would like to be under less direct pressure from Pakistan.”

Ghani has failed to make headway in efforts to fully engage Pakistan in cutting support for the Taliban and bringing them into a dialogue aimed at peace. After a year-long diplomatic offensive, Ghani in late 2015 cut ties with Islamabad and has since openly accused Pakistan of waging war on Afghanistan, using the Taliban as its proxy.

Pakistani authorities deny accusations that their powerful ISI intelligence agency supports the insurgents.

With the major councils based in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s role could be reduced at a time when the Islamabad government is under pressure from the United States and major ally China to rein in what many see as its terrorist-supporting activities.

If the move is confirmed, it could also indicate a unity among leaders, who have recently been portrayed by some observers, including the U.S. military, as suffering widening divisions and struggling for cash — even though the opium production under their control has an annual export value of $4 billion, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

The Taliban’s leadership shura consists of 16 elected officials who oversee activity across Afghanistan, give permission for any changes in planning and strategy, and mediate disputes among military commanders. The military commanders include Mullah Yaqoub, the son of the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar — who was declared dead last year — and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the brutal Haqqani network and a co-deputy leader with Yaqoub.

The Afghan Taliban are led by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who took over after the death of Mullah Omar’s successor, Akhtar Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike this year. High-ranking Taliban officials say Haibatullah is not engaged in day-to-day decision-making. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada

A senior Taliban commander, Asad Afghan, told The Associated Press the move would consolidate the insurgents’ military gains and help lay the ground for a dominant position if and when peace talks resume.

“We are in the last stages of war and are moving forward,” said Afghan, who is closely involved in formulating the insurgents’ war strategy.

“We are the real government in Afghanistan,” he said. The move across the border would give the movement “more focus” at a time it needs to be “quick, clear and more secure about our decisions.”

Afghanistan: Helmand Province “On The Brink of Collapse” — Taliban presses offensive

December 21, 2015

AFP

Afghan security personnel stand guard along a street in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province. © AFP/File

KANDAHAR (AFGHANISTAN) (AFP) – Clashes intensified Monday as the Taliban pressed an offensive to capture a key district in Helmand, a day after an official warned that the entire southern province was on the brink of collapse.Local residents reported crippling food shortages in Sangin district, heartland of the opium harvest and long seen as a hornet’s nest of insurgent activity, after the Taliban began storming government buildings on Sunday.

“The Taliban have captured the police headquarters, the governor’s office as well as the intelligence agency building in Sangin,” deputy Helmand governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar told AFP.

“Fighting is escalating in the district.”

Rasoolyar’s comments come a day after he posted a desperate plea on Facebook to President Ashraf Ghani, warning the entire province was at risk of falling to the Taliban.

The grim assessment bore striking similarities to the security situation that led to the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September — the biggest Taliban victory in 14 years of war.

The government in Kabul vowed to send reinforcements to Sangin, while strongly denying that the district was at risk of being captured.

But trapped residents told AFP that roads to Sangin had been heavily mined by insurgents and soldiers besieged in government buildings were begging for food rations.

All but two of Helmand’s 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by Taliban insurgents, officials said.

Insurgents also recently overran Babaji, a suburb of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, fuelling concern that the city could fall to the insurgents.

The fall of Helmand would deal another stinging blow to the country’s NATO-backed forces as they struggle to rein in the ascendant insurgency.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, US special forces have been sent to Helmand in recent weeks to assist Afghan forces, a senior Western official told AFP without offering details.

This month marks a year since the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations assisting in training local forces.

President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedalling on previous plans to shrink the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.

Afghanistan’s Helmand Province “On the Verge” of Falling to the Taliban

December 20, 2015

AFP

Afghan security forces patrol a street in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. AFP file photo

KABUL (AFP) – Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand is on the verge of falling to the Taliban, with 90 soldiers killed in two days of fierce clashes, its deputy governor said Sunday.Clashes between insurgents and government forces have intensified in several key districts of Helmand, fuelling concern that the province is on the brink of a security collapse.

In an unusual plea to President Ashraf Ghani via Facebook, deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar pleaded for urgent intervention to save the province that British and US forces struggled for years to defend.

“I know that bringing up this issue on social media will make you very angry,” Rasoolyar wrote in his Facebook post addressed to Ghani.

“But I cannot be silent any more… as Helmand stands on the brink… Ninety men have been killed in Gereshk and Sangin districts in the last two days.”

The post bore grim similarities to the security situation that led to the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September — the biggest Taliban victory in 14 years of war.

The fall of Helmand would deal another stinging blow to the country’s NATO-backed forces as they struggle to rein in the insurgency.

There was no immediate reaction on Rasoolyar’s post from Ghani’s office. The defence ministry in Kabul strongly denied that Helmand would fall and rejected claims of 90 deaths.

But local officials backed Rasoolyar’s assertions, saying the Taliban were making steady gains in districts such as Sangin, which has long been a hornet’s nest of insurgent activity.

Afghanistan’s spy agency chief resigned earlier this month after a scathing Facebook post that vented frustration over Ghani’s diplomatic outreach to Pakistan — the Taliban’s historic backers — aimed at restarting peace talks with the insurgents.

Rahmatullah Nabil’s resignation raised uncomfortable questions about a brewing leadership crisis in Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency gains new momentum.

This month marks a year since the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations assisting in training local forces.

President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedalling on previous plans to shrink the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.

Afghan Taliban Leaders Say Mullah Akhtar Mansour “Has Gone Missing” — Probably dead

December 6, 2015

AFP

A handout photograph released by The Afghan Taliban on December 3, 2015, and said to show Mansour in mid-2014. AFP photo

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2015-12-06

Several senior sources within the Taliban on Sunday cast doubt on the authenticity of an audio message purporting to prove Mullah Akhtar Mansour was alive, highlighting mistrust within the ranks following the cover-up of Mullah Omar’s death.

The insurgent group released the 16-minute file late Saturday following reports citing multiple intelligence and militant sources claiming the Taliban chief was killed in a firefight on Tuesday inside Pakistan.

But doubts continued to linger among the group’s senior ranks, who are distrustful of their leadership following a two-year cover-up of the death of the Taliban’s founder and first leader Mullah Omar.

Mawlawi Hanifi, a commander based in southern Helmand province, told AFP: “I listened to the clip and it looks fake.”

“I think his voice has been mimicked. Mansour himself fooled us for two years, how can we trust this now?”

Another senior Taliban source said that the group is buying time to select a new leader and bring their organisation out of “this sudden shock”.

“We need more proof,” he concluded.

Two other Taliban senior officials expressed similar concerns, with the latter insisting that Mansour succumbed to his injuries on Thursday.

In the message, a man purporting to be Mansour said: “I have recorded this message to let everyone know that I am alive.”

“I didn’t have a fight with anyone, no meeting was held and I have not been to Kuchlak (near Quetta in Pakistan) in years. This is all enemy propaganda,” the message added.

The man also offered his condolences to the relatives of civilians killed in central Wardak province where a firefight erupted between government forces and the Taliban on Friday.

Growing mistrust

But two other Taliban officials based in Pakistan’s Quetta city told AFP the clip was genuine and said they had been present at the recording.

“This audio was recorded yesterday by our leader Mansour, we were present. The meeting was attended by our high officials, edited, and then sent on to the media,” said one of the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Pakistani analyst and long-time observer of the Taliban, said the voice sounded like Mansour’s.

“I believe it is him,” he said, but added that questions would be asked over the delay in releasing the clip.

“Why did they wait almost five days to do that? If they’d done it earlier it might have been more effective,” he said.

He added that uncertainty within the ranks had been compounded by the mystery surrounding the death of Mullah Omar.

Afghan intelligence officials announced his death in July, with the Taliban later confirming their founder had died in 2013, apparently due to illness.

Mansour was declared Taliban leader on July 31, but splits immediately emerged in the group, with some top leaders refusing to pledge their allegiance to the new leader saying the process to select him was rushed and biased.

A breakaway faction of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohamed Rasool was formed last month, in the first formal division in the once-unified group.

But Mansour’s group has seen a resurgence in recent months, opening new battlefronts across the country with Afghan forces struggling to beat back the expanding insurgency.

Speculation about Mansour’s death has also threatened to derail a renewed regional push to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban.

Mansour is believed to be a proponent of talks with Afghan authorities, a deeply contentious issue that has prompted much rancour within hardline insurgent ranks.

(AFP)