The Afghan military withdrew its remaining combat forces from the district of Musa Qala in Helmand province today after battling the Taliban there for nearly a year. The district is now firmly under the control of the Taliban.
The Afghan Army commander in charge of the fighting in Helmand characterized the Army’s withdrawal from Musa Qala as a redeployment of forces.
“Their presence in the area [in Musa Qala] did not mean anything,” Mohammad Moeen Faqir, the commander of 215th Corps told Reuters. “We will use them in battle with enemies in other parts of Helmand province.”
According to Reuters, Faqir said the beleaguered troops who were based in Musa Qala will be relocated to the town of Gereshk in Nahr-i-Sarraj district in Helmand, where the Taliban is pressing an offensive to take over the central part of the province.
The Afghan military’s retreat from Helmand means the Taliban is now fully in control of the district. The Long War Journal previously assessed Musa Qala as being under Taliban control, as Afghan forces were confined to a few bases and according to Afghan press reports, the Taliban was controlling and administering key areas of the district, including government buildings and the bazaar.
Musa Qala has switched hands between Coalition and Afghan forces and the Taliban several times over the past decade. In September 2006, the British made a secret deal with the Taliban that ultimately led to the Taliban controlling the district. The district center switched hands several times between 2007 up until US forces surged in Helmand in late 2009. [See LWJ report, The checkered history of Musa Qala.]
When US forces began withdrawing from Helmand in 2011, the Taliban immediately restarted offensive operations in Musa Qala and the surrounding districts. Security in Helmand has spiraled out of control as the Taliban has pressed its offensive to regain the ground lost there between 2009-2011. Of Helmand’s 13 districts, five are known to be controlled by the Taliban (Nowzad, Musa Qala, Baghran, Dishu, and Khanashin), and another five are heavily contested (Nahr-i-Sarraj, Kajaki, Nad Ali, Garmsir and Sangin). 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.
US and British special operations forces have been deployed to Helmand since the summer of 2015 to support the struggling Afghan forces. Most recently, the US deployed an additional 500 Special Forces advisers to oppose the Taliban. However, the reintroduction of US and British forces in Helmand has not prevented the districts of Nowzad and Musa Qala from falling to the Taliban.
Outside of Helmand, the Taliban has significantly expanded its influence in the past year. The Taliban now controls 38 districts in Afghanistan and contests another 40, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. These numbers may be low given the methodology used to assess control in contested districts.