Published On: Sat, Dec 26th, 2015

Particular forces name in Sangin airstrikes in battle for key Afghan city

At least two raids have been carried out in the Sangin district, where intense fighting has been raging for a week between Afghan troops and the Taliban.

The latter reportedly took control of the town in the Helmand province earlier this week after hardline insurgents said their fighters had seized the local government building and police station and that their flag was flying.

But Aktar Mohammad, a provincial council member in Sangin, said reinforcements had arrived in the area, while Britain has also sent a small team of advisers to the region.

Officials have not confirmed that special forces are at the town and insist the advisers are not there to take part in any combat missions.

Mr Mohammad said he and most residents of Sangin fled to the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, when the fighting escalated.

Sangin came to prominence after a garrison of more than 100 British soldiers were besieged by the Taliban between 2006 and 2007, before they were relieved by a 1,000-strong international force.

It became symbolically important for Britain when it claimed 106 lives – nearly a quarter of the nations’ dead – during the 13-year-long combat mission in Afghanistan.

Sangin is a prize for the Taliban as it sits on routes for drug, arms and other contraband that fund the insurgency.

UK forces have returned to Helmand for the first time since troops pulled out of the country in October last year.

The decision to send around 10 British advisers back to the former UK military base Camp Bastion – following the deployment of SAS troops to halt the militant advance – was taunted by the Taliban as ‘stupid’.

More foreign troops died fighting in Helmand than in any other province in Afghanistan but little more than a year after NATO left, the region risks being overrun by the Taliban because of confusion, corruption and mismanagement in Afghan forces.

Sarwar Jan, commander of a police battalion that has been heavily engaged in Sangin and Marjah, another district mostly in Taliban hands, said his isolated, under-equipped men were left to fight alone.

‘We call them up for reinforcement when there is an attack, but they won’t respond. So our forces are like: “If they don’t cooperate, why should we help them?”’ he said.

It is a picture familiar from the disaster in the northern city of Kunduz where last September Taliban fighters drove off demoralised and disorganised security forces and seized the town before pulling out two weeks later.

Units in Helmand have been left to fight for months on end with inadequate supplies and reinforcements.

Corruption has siphoned off supplies and some units are under-strength because of ghost troops – deserters who are not reported so that officials can pocket their pay.

‘In one battalion, the official strength is 400 but the actual number is around 150,’ said Ataullah Afghan, a member of provincial council in Helmand.

‘There is intelligence failure, lack of coordination, huge corruption in terms of selling fuel, ghost troops and much else,’ he said.

Helmand, a longstanding Taliban stronghold and the source of most of the opium that helps fund the movement, has always been difficult to control.

But a web of competing interests and political interference has made it impossible to get a grip of the situation, says Shekiba Hashemi, a member of parliament from Kandahar who sits on the parliamentary security committee.

‘The police chief for example has been appointed by one powerful figure, the governor by another figure and the army chief by someone else,’ she said.

‘There is no proper coordination and management or hierarchy in the ranks. You don’t know who is in charge and when things go wrong, they start blaming each other.’

President Ashraf Ghani’s awkward National Unity Government, formed after last year’s inconclusive election, has left key positions unfilled or allowed local politicians to dictate security appointments.

‘If their demands are not met in appointing a police or army officials in this or that province, they create problems for the respective ministers,’ said a government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity.

When NATO troops pulled out of Helmand in October last year, hopes were expressed that Afghan forces that moved into the two huge bases left behind by American and British soldiers would be able to take on the Taliban alone.

Instead, insurgent advances have shown how much remains to be done.

While NATO officials readily praise the courage and endurance of Afghan soldiers, a Pentagon report to Congress last week highlighted the overall shortcomings of the forces, which it said had serious problems with leadership.

In addition, army units were spread too thinly and were too inclined to wait at their checkpoints instead of taking the fight to the Taliban, leaving the initiative entirely up to the insurgents, it said.

Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai admits the fighting in Helmand has been “difficult” but says the problems that have emerged are the natural result of handing over security to local forces that still needed development.

‘In 2014, in such a hurry, everyone was saying we have to take over responsibility. In only one year, we took over responsibility,” he told a news conference in Kabul this week.

Alarmed by the Taliban advances, Britain has sent extra personnel to NATO’s Resolute Support advisory mission in Helmand in a bid to help struggling local forces.

Afghan commanders have repeatedly pleaded for more helicopters, and close air support and intelligence from surveillance aircraft – battlefield assets referred to in military jargon as “enablers”.’

‘Coordination among forces here have improved but intel gathering still remains a challenge,’ said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, a spokesman for the 215 Corps based in Helmand.

He said that NATO forces had operated with around 60 eye-in-the-sky surveillance balloons in Sangin, allowing them to track the movements of groups of insurgents.

By contrast, Afghan forces now had just one balloon in the whole province, despite pleas for help. ‘Our request is still pending,’ he said.

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