August 14, 2016


ā[The entire area held by government forces in Helmand has shrunk in recent months. Four districts — including Musa Qala and Nawzad — that were the focus of thousands of American and coalition troops during the 2010 surge are under Taliban control. Frequent airstrikes and reinforcements are required to keep many of the other 10 districts, some only nominally in government control, from falling.]

By Mujib Mashal

CHAH-I-ANJIR, Afghanistan — As Taliban fighters push toward the southern city of Lashkar Gah, members of Afghanistan’s elite forces are trying to hold their ground here, about 10 miles from the city, the capital of Helmand Province and a critical link in the defense of the entire region.

The Afghan government’s need to rely on the special forces, highly trained for commando raids, to guard the perimeter of the city exposes a stark reality. As Helmand, the largest province in Afghanistan and the center of its opium production, endures intense enemy fire this summer, the regular police and army forces have failed to stand firm, raising the possibility that the Taliban could overrun Lashkar Gah.

“The police, as soon as they were inflicted with some casualties, gave up about 27 posts one after another without a fight, and our posts were surrounded by surprise,” said Col. Nematullah Khalil, the commander of the Afghan Army’s Third Regiment, 2015 Corps, whose soldiers are trying to help the special forces hold the line in Chah-i-Anjir, in the Nad Ali district. “The enemy planted a lot of mines wherever they reached, and that slows us down.”

Lt. Col. Mohammad Omar Jan, the police chief of the Nad Ali district, rejected that assessment. The army is blaming the police to cover up for its own weakness, Colonel Jan said, adding that the army is responsible for Chah-i-Anjir’s security because his forces are busy trying to secure the district governor’s compound.

“The police are fighting in the front line and suffer heavy casualties more than any other forces,” he said.

In the scorching heat on the front lines near Chah-i-Anjir, members of regular police and army units looked tired on a recent day as they gathered in small clusters, resting in the shade of some buildings’ mud walls.

The main road that separates the Afghan forces from the Taliban, who have been striking more forcefully and relentlessly this fighting season, is heavily mined. The waist-high cornfields around the largely abandoned homes look calm, but at night the forces regularly clash with the Taliban. The troops have managed to retake only about a mile in the 10 days since they lost much of the Chah-i-Anjir area, said Colonel Khalil, the Afghan Army officer.

The entire area held by government forces in Helmand has shrunk in recent months. Four districts — including Musa Qala and Nawzad — that were the focus of thousands of American and coalition troops during the 2010 surge are under Taliban control. Frequent airstrikes and reinforcements are required to keep many of the other 10 districts, some only nominally in government control, from falling.

While Afghan officials insist that Lashkar Gah will not be allowed to fall, their helter-skelter strategy seems unsustainable against an enemy that has proved to be mobile and resilient. Defending the district centers that have not fallen to the Taliban has required a delegation of senior generals and officials sent from Kabul to shuttle back and forth to monitor developments.

On Thursday morning, the senior generals led the fighting, pushing their ground troops and calling in strikes by Afghan and American aircraft to fend off Taliban advances on the district center of Nawa, just south of Lashkar Gah and one of the safest places in Helmand until recently. The Taliban fire, including mortar barrages, damaged the government buildings and demolished the watchtowers.

Upon their return to Lashkar Gah, the generals remained in emergency mode, constantly on the line with troops in other districts, urging them to hold their ground. The Taliban fighters, many of them retreating from Nawa, shifted to exert pressure on the center of the neighboring district of Garmsir. The generals rallied some commandos, and then piled into helicopters to save Garmsir.

Another team was busy trying to clear the main road to Kandahar Province, which had remained blocked for a week because of Taliban mines and check posts, officials said. Sultan Muhammad, the police chief of Maiwand District, who participated in the clearance, said that the authorities had defused as many as 100 roadside bombs, and that their teams were continuing to clear more even as they were being engaged by the Taliban.

Late on Sunday, the convoy of the provincial police chief, Gen. Aqa Noor Kentoz, struck a roadside bomb. The general and three of his guards were wounded, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

Why are the Afghan forces, who local security officials say outnumber the insurgents at least five to one and receive air support, struggling so badly in a strategic province? Helmand was a center of President Obama’s surge, in which tens of thousands of American and coalition troops were sent to try to secure the area, with hundreds of NATO military advisers still aiding the Afghans in the province.

Some of the most senior members of the original Taliban are from Helmand, but they now operate from across the border in Pakistan, enabling them to move back and forth and often out of the reach of coalition forces. Beyond its symbolic value, Helmand remains a focus of their attacks not only because it is the gateway to other southern provinces, but also because its fields produce the highest amount of opium in Afghanistan and its vast deserts sit on the main opium trade route. Increasingly, the Taliban have come to resemble a drug cartel as much as an insurgency, relying heavily on the profits from the opium trade to fund their fight.

Further complicating the situation, officials in Helmand say, is that local strongmen are said to be using their influence to plant their own men in provincial security jobs in outposts on the drug-trade route. Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahman, the deputy minister of interior, said more than 90 percent of the police officers in Helmand were residents of the province and thus vulnerable to meddling and conflicting loyalties.

For example, if a commander is replaced because of incompetence or abuse, security officials say, he is apt to take hundreds of his men with him, leaving a hole in the area’s defense.

Political ties can also undermine security. When the brother of a powerful lawmaker who served as the security chief of the Garmsir district was fired recently over allegations that he was involved in the drug trade, the lawmaker organized protests in Lashkar Gah and in Kabul. (One of the lawmaker’s nephews remains the head of counternarcotics in the province.)

Moreover, military goals pale compared with the allure of financial gain.

“The most important thing for the forces in Helmand is their own interests and business in the province — they are trying to get the amount of money which they have been told,” said Muhammad Jan Rasulyar, former deputy governor of Helmand, referring to the widely held belief that commanders in lucrative posts pay higher-ups who help them get such jobs. “Differences between government authorities in Helmand made the Taliban stronger in the province, and this is the main reason for the increasing of conflicts. The authorities ward off each other instead of the enemy.”

The army itself has struggled to recover after suffering a record number of casualties in Helmand last year. Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy chief of the army staff, said senior officers tried to use the winter months to rebuild the 2015 Corps. But the relentless pace of the fighting, in Helmand and in other parts of the country, derailed their efforts. New recruits with little experience were thrown into battle.

“All of a sudden, the threats in Helmand increased and there was need for those forces to be used in the field, and we felt their deficiencies,” General Murad said. “We have felt their lack of fighting abilities. We felt their lack of equipment and experience in the battlefield.”

Conversely, the Taliban seem to be growing in their actual fighting capability, or in their psychological hold over a struggling foe. Afghan commanders, security officials and front-line fighters say the insurgents are physically tough and use night-vision goggles, snipers and sophisticated weapons.

This phase of the war pits motorcycle-riding insurgents who plant mines and then swiftly disappear against an armed force that is lured into traps while chasing the insurgents. This happens even as the soldiers are supported by aircraft that can rain down fire that makes the holding of any area costly for the Taliban.

But more than anything, it is an uneven fight between insurgents prepared to attack and die, against soldiers who would flee to live. It is also a story told by the disparity in the unverified number of casualties provided by Helmand’s governor, Hayatullah Hayat. In the most recent two weeks of fighting, 210 Taliban fighters were killed and 40 were wounded, compared with 15 dead and 35 wounded for the Afghan forces, the governor said.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and Mohammad Fahim Abed from Kabul, Afghanistan.