The Afghan Taliban have been battling government forces for the past week in an attempt to retake control of the district of Sangin in Helmand province. Scores of civilians, security personnel, and Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed in the ongoing fighting.
The Taliban launched their assault on June 19, with an estimated 800 to 1,000 fighters attacking police and military checkpoints in Sangin. The Taliban overran several outposts, then, in what is described as a coordinated offensive, attacked security forces and government personnel in the neighboring districts of Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki in northern Helmand. Local officials in Sangin claimed that “Pakistanis and Arabs” are involved in the Taliban offensive, while Afghanistan’s Interior Minister accused the Pakistani military of participating in the attacks.
The status of the four districts is uncertain. Although Afghan officials have claimed that Sangin is “cleared of the insurgency,” residents and local officials in the district said much of the district is no longer under the government’s contro and the fighting is ongoing.
The spokesman for the governor of Helmand claimed that the fighting has ended in Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki.
The fighting in Sangin has taken a heavy toll on Afghan security forces. According to The New York Times, “more than 100 members of the Afghan forces and 50 civilians have been killed or wounded in fierce fighting,” local officials said.
Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, boasted that “more than 250 Taliban militants were killed” in Sangin alone, TOLONews reported. His claim could not be supported, but he also had said that the fighting in Sangin had ended on June 27.
The Taliban’s move on Sangin was foreshadowed in December 2013, when local security forces negotiated a peace deal with the jihadist group. Security forces abandoned some checkpoints, which were then occupied by the Taliban. Additionally, reports from the district indicated that security forces largely remained on base as the Taliban roamed the bazaars.
Sangin was one of the last districts in Helmand province held by the Taliban after US and Coalition forces launched a series of offensives to retake the province in 2010. Scores of US Marines and British soldiers were killed during brutal fighting in the district.
Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki are also considered to be key terrain by the Taliban, which controlled the districts before the US “surge” and offensive that ended in 2012. Kajaki hosts the dam, which generates electricity for Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province. In the past, the Taliban pirated electricity and profited from it.
The Taliban resurgence in Helmand takes place as the US is drawing down forces for the eventual withdrawal at the end of the year. There are currently an estimated 33,000 US forces in country, but most are focused on “retrograding” from Afghanistan. The US government hopes to keep 9,800 troops in country after 2014, tapering down to only a small presence at the US Embassy by late 2016 .