25 December 2014

Taliban Fighters Returning to Helmand Province Districts Just Evacuated by U.S. and NATO Forces

Rod Nordland
December 23, 2014

Taliban Push Into Afghan Districts That U.S. Had Secured

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — In a large swath of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, government centers are facing a long-dormant concern this winter: Four years after the American troop surge helped make such places relatively secure, they are back under threat from the insurgents.

The fighting in Helmand Province in the south has been particularly deadly, with over 1,300 security force members killed between June and November. And the insurgents’ siege of several key districts has continued long after the traditional end of the fighting season.

It has been so bad that the 90-bed hospital for war wounded run in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, by the international aid group Emergency was still running nearly full in early December, according to Emanuele Nannini, the group’s coordinator. While the group keeps no statistics on how many of its patients are fighters, and treats all sides, a rough estimate is that half of the patients are Afghan police officers, from both national and local forces. Soldiers are treated in military hospitals, which do not divulge their statistics.

An X-ray showed a bullet lodged inside another child from Sangin District. The child was paralyzed from the chest down. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“This year is much worse than previous years,” said Dr. Abdul Hamidi, a police colonel who is head of medical services for the national police in Helmand. “We’ve heard that the Quetta Shura has a big push to raise their flags over three districts by January, and has ordered their people to keep fighting until they do,” he said, referring to the exiled Taliban leadership council in Pakistan.

One of the differences is that this year, the American forces, and their close air support, have been almost completely absent from the field. And though the Afghan forces are holding on, for the most part, they are taking punishingly heavy losses.

The Taliban offensive in northern parts of Helmand Province began in earnest in June, after the last American troops pulled out of the area, and has continued at a fierce tempo.

The medical coordinator at the Emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah, Dimitra Giannakopoulou, said the facility had treated 1,952 war-related victims through the end of October; 940 of them were women and children, and most of the rest were likely combatants, she said.

Given the area’s long tradition as a Taliban stronghold, the authorities expected the June and July offensive, which at some points threatened the fall of both Sangin District and Musa Qala District. What has been unusual is the apparent determination of the Taliban to continue pressing the fight

The insurgents even managed to infiltrate the Afghan National Army’s main base in Helmand Province, Camp Shorab Maidan, formerly called Camp Bastion when it served as Britain’s main base in Afghanistan.

Now, it is the headquarters of the army’s 215th Corps. The infiltration was not the first on the sprawling base, and the insurgents managed to destroy aircraft during a raid on the base in 2012. But this one took three days to completely subdue, even after the authorities insisted it was over on both the first and again on the second day. The British had handed the base over to the Afghans only a month earlier.

On Dec. 5, after the latest infiltration, the commander of the 215th Corps, Gen. Sayid Moluk, was dismissed and replaced by Gen. Dadan Lawang, according to Afghan officials, who declined to confirm whether the unplanned change of command was related to the attack.

Nationwide, Afghanistan has lost more than 5,000 police and soldiers in the fighting this year, more than any previous year, according to official Afghan data that has not been formally released, but that was obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by Western officials familiar with the data.

The year has also hit a new high for civilian deaths in the fighting, which the United Nations estimates will exceed 10,000 by the end of 2014.

Helmand has been a particular rough spot — not just according to casualty figures, but also taking into account overall views of the government’s performance.

A recent report commissioned by the international community and carried out by an independent consultant, Coffey International Development, found that by almost every measure Afghans in Helmand saw a worsening in corruption, security, government services and delivery of justice since the departure of foreign forces.

The Helmand Monitoring and Evaluation Program, carried out for the British government since 2010, said results have never been so poor.

In Helmand, the fighting has been heaviest in Sangin, where the insurgents remain within a mile of the government buildings in the district center. But it has also been fierce in the districts of Musa Qala, Kajaki, and Now Zad in the north, and even, recently, in Marja District south and west of here — an area that had been thoroughly pacified by United States Marines after a major push in 2010.

The brunt of the current fighting in northern Sangin has been carried out by Afghan police units, who often perform a largely military role in areas like Helmand Province. According to Dr. Hamidi, the national Second Police Battalion has in the past two years had 154 soldiers suffer disabling wounds — out of a strength of 344 men.

But so far, even without coalition support, Afghan forces have managed to beat back the insurgents and keep them from totally overrunning a district.

Wounded police officers at Emergency expressed concern at the increased scale of the fighting. “Only the asphalt road is under the control of the government in Sangin. Everything else is Taliban,” said Samiullah, a policeman in Sangin for the past four years who goes by just one name. He was shot in the leg during an ambush in a village near the district center.

Like many of the wounded, he complained about both the Afghan National Army and his own commanders. “Our own commanders sell our bullets to the Taliban instead of giving them to us, and then they buy a nice house in Lashkar Gah and stay there, leaving the little guys out there to do the fighting,” Samiullah said.

Now that the Americans are gone, the army rarely conducts joint operations with the police, leaving them to do most of the fighting, said Mohammad Saleh, a five-year veteran of the Afghan Local Police in Sangin, who was badly wounded in both legs when his checkpoint was overrun by the insurgents.

Mr. Saleh remains patriotic and wants to return to the fight, but he conceded that corruption was as big an enemy as the Taliban. “Our commanders all buy their positions, so they have to make money to pay for them,” he said. “The Taliban do not do this with their commanders.”

In Musa Qala, which is near Sangin and has also been hard-pressed, Mohammad Khan, 20, a three-year veteran of the police, said the insurgents had surrounded his post three times in recent weeks, until he was wounded in early December by a mine. “It was better when the Americans were here,” he said. “But they cannot break us — they cannot.”

Fighting lately has been so intense that in recent weeks ambulances have not been able to travel on the heavily mined roads, and the police especially are afraid to use them for fear of attack, they say.

When an Afghan policeman named Torja was wounded in Now Zad District, northern Helmand, on Dec. 5, his commander paid a taxi $70 to take him, out of uniform, to the Emergency hospital — many times the going rate for such a trip.

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