Two Helmand Schools Now ANA Forts

~~~

by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Nad Ali

The Guardian

April 16, 2016

~~~

Two schools in Helmand that were refurbished using British aid money are now being used as bases for the Afghan army, the Guardian has learned.

In another sign that intensified fighting between the resurgent Taliban and government forces threatens to reverse some of the most significant gains of the past 15 years, the Helmand schools are now occupied by Afghan national army soldiers.

Pupils still attend one of the schools, in Sayedabad, Nad Ali district, which received about £100,000 from the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Soldiers have built a rudimentary watchtower on the roof and walk heavily armed through the schoolyard.

The other school, in Chahe Anjir, also in Nad Ali, was renovated by the British government for £450,000. It was abandoned six months ago and turned into an outpost for the army.

Civilian casualties are on the rise in Afghanistan, and when schools become part of the battleground, children risk being caught in the crossfire. Every fourth civilian injured or killed in the conflict is a child. In Helmand, where a majority of British soldiers died, the frontline now slices through areas that only months ago were relatively peaceful.

Soldiers in Sayedabad were nonchalant about their presence in the school, which is the only one in Helmand to allow mixed-gender classes beyond age nine, according to the provincial education department. Though many families have fled the village, hundreds of children were still in school when the Guardian visited, about half of them girls.

“Why would the students be afraid?” said Farhad, an army commander who goes by one name. “Afghan children are not scared.” Inside, pupils agreed they were not afraid. “No way!” one class shouted with one voice, before arguing whether boys or girls were the bravest.

“They have got used to it,” said Sakina, the teacher. “But there is no doubt they are afraid. The Taliban probably knows the army is here, and they might fire rockets.” On more than one occasion, she said, gunfire had sent her students scrambling for cover under tables.

In 2015, the UN documented military use of 35 schools, compared with 12 the year before, said Danielle Bell, human rights director with the UN in in Afghanistan, which will release a report on schools and medical facilities at risk next week. In 2015, 139,000 students were affected by school closures due to conflict, Bell said.

The actual numbers are almost certainly higher due to the UN’s lack of access to volatile areas. For instance, the two Helmand schools discovered by the Guardian do not figure in the UN report.

Ahmad Shuja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, urged the Afghan government to protect its schools and live up to the safe schools declaration ratified last year. “Failing to protect schools will risk setting back what Afghanistan’s international donors justifiably consider to be one of their landmark achievements in Afghanistan – the dramatically increased access to education for Afghan boys and girls,” Shuja said.

In addition to endangering children, he said fighting “damages Afghanistan’s already lacking education infrastructure at a time when funds to rebuild and expand schools are decreasing.”

The office of the president, Ashraf Ghani, did not respond to requests for a comment. A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office (FCO said: “We are concerned about reports of schools in Helmand being used as military bases.

“We expect the Afghan government to do its utmost to ensure that any schools being used for military efforts are returned to their original purpose when they are considered safe to do so. The spokesperson added that responsibility for the violence ultimately lay with the insurgents.

In the other school renovated with British support, in Chahe Anjir, there are no more children. When the Guardian visited, Taliban fighters had draped large pieces of black cloth across the gravel road about 100 metres away to allow them to cross undetected. Within a stone’s throw of the school building, white Taliban flags had been planted in the fields.

Inside the classrooms, which appeared to have been stripped of desks, chairs and most other essential school equipment, a company of 20 soldiers had stacked ammunition cases underneath blackboards and spread out sleeping bags on bare concrete floors.

The inside wall, pockmarked with fist-sized holes, showed signs of a recent battle when the army had to recapture the school from the Taliban.

The company commander, Haji Mahboub, acknowledged that fighting in the school harmed children in the area, and said he hoped to find an alternative. But the school was already all but destroyed. Helmand’s director of education, Abdul Matin Jaffar, said the students had moved to another school east of the Helmand river.

Soldiers did not seem to have second thoughts about fighting in the school. “Do you want us to stand out on the road?” Ruhollah Amini, 26, said in between volleys of crackling gunfire from a fellow soldier shooting erratically, machine gun over his head.

In Sayedabad, where students were still in class, officials claimed their presence was intended not to harm but to defend the school.

“If there was no army base on the school, the Taliban might burn the school down,” said Gholam Sakhi, commander of the Afghan local police in Sayedabad. He also hinted at another possible reason for the school seizure: “It’s the highest building in the village.”

~~~

Additional reporting by Abdul Rauf Mehrpoor.

~~~

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/16/afghan-army-moves-into-helmand-schools-rebuilt-with-uk-aid

~~~

Tiny Afghan Air Force Hunts Militants

~~~

Khaama Press

April 22, 2016

~~~

The Afghan Air Force (AAF) pounded the militants in eastern Nangarhar and southeastern Paktia provinces in the past 24 hours, leaving at least 25 dead.

The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said at least 6 militants loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group were among those killed.

A statement by MoD said the airstrikes were carried out in Achin, Mamand Dara and Ghani Khel districts of Nangarhar province and Zurmat district of Paktia province.

The anti-government armed militant groups have not commented regarding the report so far.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have stepped up counter-terrorism operations with improved close-air support to suppress the insurgency activities of the anti-government armed militant groups.

The Afghan Air Force (AAF) has so far received 8 A-29 Super Tucano Light Attack Aircraft along with some MD-530 warrior helicopters that have significantly increased the airpower of the Afghan forces.

A-29 is a multi-role, fixed-wing aircraft that will provide the Afghan air force with an indigenous air-to-ground capability and aerial reconnaissance capabilities to support the country’s counterinsurgency operations.

Afghanistan also received 3 Mi-25 gunship helicopters from India late last year and officially started service with the Afghan Air Force (AAF) earlier this year.

~~~

http://www.khaama.com/afghan-air-force-kill-25-militants-in-separate-raids-including-isis-loyalists-0733

~~~

ANA Eyeballing Helmand

~~~

by Mohammad Llyas Dayee & Abubakar Siddique

Gandhara News

April 18, 2016

~~~

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The dusty ground thrums under the heels of the troops being retrained to save Afghanistan’s largest and most dangerous province.

Hundreds of U.S. military advisers are overseeing the retraining of thousands of Afghan troops operating under the umbrella of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Maiwand Corps. It is one of the six Afghan regional commands tasked with protecting Helmand, which has seen rapid Taliban advances during the past year.

With the advent of the new fighting season after the Taliban unveiled their latest offensive, Helmand is in the eye of the storm as the insurgents push hard to overrun the region central to their recruitment. Its status as the center of global drug production also guarantees to insurgent war chests brimming.

The headquarters of the 215th Maiwand Corps in Helmand’s sprawling capital Lashkar Gah echoes with loud cries of “Allah-hu-Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and “promises to serve our homeland” as columns of Afghan troops march at the end of a two-month rapid retraining regime.

They are trying to conceal their lack of discipline and skill with enthusiasm as young soldiers often struggle to keep pace with the military drill rhythm. Soon they will be deployed to frontlines across Helmand, where thousands of Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed as Taliban overran or contest 11 of Helmand’s 15 districts during the past year.

Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a former communist general now in charge of all Afghan forces in Helmand, says that by removing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his forces, he expects them to stand their ground and even reclaim territories from the insurgents.

“Ultimately, it all depend on those who are keeping the flame of war alight in our homeland. We are ready to take on any challenges that our opponents are capable of throwing at us now,” he said. “But if the dynamics of the battlefield change radically, for example, if the neighbors supporting the insurgents here double or triple their resources, then we will be forced to reconfigure our response.”

An estimated 350,000 troops are bracing for a difficult year. After the withdrawal of most international troops at the end of NATO’s combat operations in 2014, it is the second year when they are expected to face a robust insurgent offensive in the face of diminishing international support. The loss of NATO’s planning, intelligence support, and superior firepower has badly hurt the Afghan forces. In addition, Afghan generals have been forced to lead and plan a war after relying on Western military mentors for years.

With help from a battalion of 500 U.S. soldiers, four battalions of the Afghan Army 215th Corps have been redeployed to the frontline districts.

“We are not only here to repair your vehicles, but to help with weapons and share intelligence,” a U.S. military officer overseeing the training told Afghan cadets in March. “Now is not the time to stay behind high blast walls, watchtowers, and barbed wire. You must abandon your defensive posture. It is now the time to fight.”

Kabul and its Western allies were alarmed earlier this year when insurgents overran Musa Qala and Nawzad districts and virtually surrounded Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah.

Abdul Tawab Qureshi, a military expert in Helmand, says the Afghan forces need to clean up their ranks from corruption, find better leadership, and secure long-term intelligence and air support from U.S. forces if they hope to win the war.

“Some of the leadership in the security forces have been appointed because of their connections, which renders them incapable of leading troops in battle,” he said. “Corruption is also a major problem.”

To fight corruption, the Afghan leadership recently appointed Major General Moein Faqir to lead the 2015th Corps after thousands of “ghost” soldiers were discovered among the estimated 18,000 soldiers of the force. While their salaries were regularly paid, nobody served or even made roll calls.

Qahraman, the operational commander of Afghan security forces in Helmand, is optimistic his men are on the right path toward defeating the enemy. He says the 215th Corps now has its own drone fleet that watches Helmand’s nearly 60,000 square kilometers day and night.

“We have build the military capacity to face any eventuality in Helmand,” he said.

~~~

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.

~~~

http://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-helmand-afghan-army/27680720.html

~~~