Since US forces withdrew of the bulk of its “surge” forces in 2014 and turned over security to Afghanistan’s military and police, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated in Helmand province, according to information compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. That data is confirmed by Resolute Support (RS), which provided the district level assessments to the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The Taliban currently controls seven of Helmand’s 13 districts (Baghran, Dishu, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Reg or Khanshin, and Sangin). The other six districts (Nad Ali, Lashkar Gah, Nahri Sarraj, Nawa-I- Barak Zayi, Washer, and Garmser) there are contested.
LWJ and RS/SIGAR concur on the assessments of the seven Taliban controlled districts. Baghran, a remote district in northern Helmand, has remained under Taliban control since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after al Qaeda’s attack on Sept. 11, 2001. The other six districts have been hotly contested since the vast majority of US forces left Helmand in 2014.
However, of the remaining six districts, LWJ and RS somewhat differ on the assessments. RS has five classifications for a district: Government Controlled; Government Influenced; Contested; Insurgent Contested; and Insurgent Controlled. LWJ has only three classifications: Government Controlled; Contested; Insurgent Controlled.
LWJ developed this classification system for two reasons. First, it is very difficult to assess Control vs. Influence based on press reports and other open source information. Second, we believe the “influence” distinction is somewhat meaningless. Whether the government controls 70 percent or 30 percent of a district, the government is still unable to fully secure and administer to the population and faces a challenge from the Taliban in these realms; we therefore classify these districts as contested.
Of the six remaining districts RS has assessed Garmser as Insurgent Influenced; Nad Ali as Contested; and Lashkar Gah, Nahr-i-Sarraj, Nawa, and Washer as Government Influenced.
LWJ has assessed all six districts as Contested. Press reports from Helmand bear this out. For instance, the capital of Lashkar Gah has been under significant Taliban pressure for more than two years. In late 2016, the Taliban surrounded the provincial capital, ambushed Afghan security forces, and killed more than 200 security personnel. The Taliban routinely conduct suicide attacks, ambushes, and assassinations in Lashkar Gah, and still control areas of the district.
Nawa is another district where the Taliban is highly active. The district exchanged hands four times from 2016-2017. Afghan forces last liberated Nawa’s district center in July 2017, however the Taliban is known to have a significant presence in the district and remains active.
In Nahr-i-Sarraj, the Taliban are constantly attacking Afghan security bases and outposts. In the past, the town of Gereshk and surrounding areas have been hotly contested. While the US Marines and the Afghan military believe that they have “Gereshk under control,” much of the district remains in the hands of the Taliban, according to The Washington Post.
Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the security situation in Helmand and is known to operate in southern Helmand. Fighters from al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent are reported to have trained at camps located in Helmand’s Dishu and Khanashin districts as recently as 2014. The town of Baramacha in Dishu is a known hub of jihadist activity. The camps are believed to be operational to this day. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Al Qaeda operates in southern Helmand province.]