Commandos from Afghanistan’s counterterrorism force freed 59 prisoners from a Taliban “jail” in the troubled southern province of Helmand. The raid, and another like it early last month, are key indicators that the province is slipping out of the Afghan government’s control.
Soldiers from the “1st Ktah Khas (KKA), Afghanistan’s national-level counterterrorism unit,” launched an air assault on the makeshift Taliban prison earlier today in the district of Nahr-i-Sarraj, US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the US military command in the country said in a press release.
The raid was an Afghan led and executed operation, according to USFOR-A. “US forces provided only limited intelligence and planning support to this operation,” the press release stated. “No US forces were on the ground during the operation.”
Afghan forces, backed by US Special Forces, launched a similar raid in the district of Now Zad in Helmand one month ago, on Dec. 3, 2015. The combined forces “freed more than 40 prisoners comprised of Afghan Police, Afghan National Army and Afghan Border Police members,” USFOR-A reported last month. Updating last month’s raid, USFOR-A claimed today that 60 prisoners were freed on Dec. 3.
“Afghan intelligence sources used the intelligence gathered during the Now Zad raid to discover the location of the hostages rescued Saturday in Nahr-i-Sarraj,” USFOR-A stated in today’s press release.
While the operations against the Taliban prisons in Nahr-i-Sarraj and Now Zad highlights potential capabilities of Afghanistan’s Special Security Forces and the Special Mission Wing, which flew the helicopters in both raids, they also emphasize the worsening security situation in Helmand province.
The Afghan jihadist group has continued to press its offensive in Helmand to regain the ground lost between 2009-2011, during the US-led “surge.” Of Helmand’s 13 districts, five are known to be controlled by the Taliban (Nowzad, Musa Qala, Baghran, Dishu, and Sangin), and another five are heavily contested (Nahr-i-Sarraj, Kajaki, Nad Ali, Garmsir and Khanashin). Of the remaining three districts, The Long War Journal believes two (Washir and Nawa-i-Barak) are contested, but the situation is unclear. Only Lashkar Gah, the district that hosts the provincial capital, has not seen significant Taliban activity. [See LWJ report, Taliban controls or contests nearly all of southern Afghan province.]
Taliban forces based in Nahr-i-Sarraj and Nad Ali are just miles from the city of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. The two districts are hotly contested, and the Taliban have surrounded Marjah and Gereshk, the district centers of Nad Ali and Nahr-i-Sarraj respectively.
Outside of Helmand, the Taliban has significantly expanded its influence in the past year. The Taliban now controls 40 districts in Afghanistan and contests another 39, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. These numbers may be low given the methodology used to assess control and contested districts.
The Taliban resurgence has also impacted al Qaeda’s fortunes in Afghanistan. The jihadist group operated two training camps in Shorabak district in Kandahar province, one which was 30 square miles, for one and a half years before US forces discovered and destroyed them in a four-day operation in October 2015.