Afghan forces on Wednesday battled Taliban fighters who overran the district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand this week after reinforcements and NATO military advisers were rushed in to try to stop another district falling into insurgent hands.
Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai said fighting was going on in Sangin where government forces had been surrounded by insurgents who controlled most of the district including roads needed for reinforcements and supplies.
“The military is in position and the operation is ongoing,” Stanekzai told a news conference in Kabul, adding that reinforcements had arrived in the province to relieve troops in Sangin.
Provincial police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said the situation had improved since the beginning of the week but heavy fighting was continuing.
Although much attention has been focused on Sangin, fierce fighting has been underway across much of Helmand, a traditional stronghold of the Taliban and a major centre for opium that US and British troops fought for years to control.
“There is fighting here every day and whenever people come to the bazaar for shopping they get killed,” said shopkeeper Musa Khan, in Marjah district, near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
The crisis in Helmand has piled pressure on the government of President Ashraf Ghani, following the fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September, which Taliban fighters seized and held for several days.
Government forces have complained bitterly about being left without adequate supplies and reinforcements as well as with none of the air power that backed up NATO forces when they fought in the region.
Military advisers from Britain have joined other NATO advisers in Helmand to help Afghan forces who have struggled to contain the insurgency since foreign troops withdrew from combat operations last year.
NATO officials say the troops sent to Helmand are not taking a direct part in combat and they have not confirmed reports that special forces were among the advisers. The Taliban said the reinforcements showed the government’s desperation.
“The Kabul administration cannot protect themselves without foreigners and the nation does not accept that,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for Taliban, said in a statement
On Sunday, the province’s deputy governor issued a highly unusual public plea via Facebook, warning that Helmand would fall unless immediate action were taken and urging Ghani, who visited Azerbaijan on Tuesday, to come to the province to see for himself.
But it is not the only province where the Taliban have made gains. On Wednesday, a spokesman said insurgents had captured the district of Gulistan in Farah, a remote western province that, like Helmand, is a major centre of opium cultivation.
However, district governor Asif Nang rejected the claim as ‘baseless’.