Last week, the Taliban overran the Sangin district center in Helmand province after Afghan forces retreated in the dead of night. Resolute Support attempted but failed to spin the defeat as a victory by claiming that the withdrawal from Sangin was planned long in advance and the Afghans left the Taliban “rubble and dirt.” The Taliban later described the district as “strategic and symbolic … for both sides” and explained that its operations in the region would benefit.
On March 25, the Taliban released a statement on Voice of Jihad entitled “The Strategic Victory of Sangin.” The most important part of the statement is the last paragraph, and particularly the last sentence [emphasis ours]:
Sangin is both a strategic and symbolic district for both sides. The British – who were initially allocated Helmand province – fought tooth and nail to defend this district and admit to having lost over a hundred soldiers in this district. For the Islamic Emirate the victory of Sangin symbolizes the unwavering spirit of the uprising against invaders and makes them the unchallenged masters of northern Helmand. With this important victory, the Mujahideen have opened up operational lines between Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces and can throw its brunt at a time and place of its choosing.
FDD’s Long War Journal has noted for some time that, in the south, the Taliban has been working to control a “belt” of districts that can be used to pressure other areas of the country. From Oct. 2015, when the Taliban took control of Ghorak district in Kandahar province (note, the district remains under Taliban control to this day):
The Taliban control or contest a belt of districts in the south spanning from Farah to Helmand, Uruzgan, and now Kandahar. The Taliban may use its presence in this belt to threaten Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, or Kandahar city. The loss of either city would be a major blow to the Afghan government.
For years, US military commanders have dismissed the Taliban’s control of remote areas of Afghanistan as insignificant as these far-flung districts have low population densities and are disconnected from what they perceive to be the center of gravity in Afghanistan: the large cities.
Yet the Taliban, which is fighting a classic guerrilla war in Afghanistan, recognizes the importance of establishing what Mao Tse-tung once described in On Guerrilla Warfare as a key tactic: their bases are not just located in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, where the Afghan and US military cannot or will not reach them.
The Taliban have effectively used this belt of bases in the south to sow chaos in the region. If you look at the Taliban control map (below), the black, red, and orange belt of districts that spans from Farah in the southwest to Ghazni in the southeast have allowed the Taliban to threaten all of the south. Large areas of Nimroz and Farah are Taliban controlled or contested. All of Helmand is Taliban controlled or contested and the provincial capital has been under siege for more than a year. All of Uruzgan’s districts are contested; the Taliban controls all of the ground except for the district centers. Half of Kandahar is Taliban controlled or contested. The Taliban does admit the central areas of Kandahar are beyond its control and it is only conducting “guerrilla attacks” there.” Much of Zabul and Ghazni are Taliban controlled or contested.
The Taliban’s statement about its victory in Sangin is more than mere propaganda. The group is outlining its strategy in southern Afghanistan. Sadly, Resolute Support’s only response was to pretend its loss in Sangin and the great south was really a win.