by Mujib Mashal & Taimoor Shah
New York Times
August 8, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan security forces are struggling to head off an intensified Taliban offensive in Helmand Province in recent weeks, heavily relying on American airstrikes as the insurgents have again tightened the noose around Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, according to officials and residents.
Even as Afghan and American officials insist that they will not allow another urban center to fall, concerned about the political ramifications for the struggling government in Kabul as well as the presidential campaign in the United States, residents and local officials describe Lashkar Gah as practically besieged.
The main road connecting the city and the highway to the southern commercial and military hub of Kandahar has been repeatedly blocked in recent days by the Taliban, who blew up several bridges. Civilian passengers can travel on an alternate dirt road, but have to pass through insurgent checkpoints. Many businesses and nongovernmental organizations based in Lashkar Gah are trying to evacuate, and the road blockages have added to their alarm.
The Afghan forces’ continuous failure to hold ground in a province that has seen the deployment of a large number of troops and resources, as well as hundreds of NATO military advisers, is taking a toll on the residents of Lashkar Gah. The city has long been a haven for people displaced from other areas of Helmand by the constant back and forth between the Taliban and the coalition and government forces.
Questions are also being raised about the sustainability of a military response that relies desperately on airstrikes against a guerrilla force.
“People are still coming from fighting areas to Lashkar Gah, but what if the Taliban enter Lashkar Gah?” said Ahmad Shirzad, a resident who said the sounds of distant shelling and aircraft had become constant. “We have witnessed fighting for so long that we are really fed up with this life and would be happy to be killed by the Taliban, or NATO to be done with this hardship.”
While the Taliban have held the Lashkar Gah suburb of Babaji for months, in recent weeks they have mounted offensives in Nad Ali District, overrunning a neighborhood there that is less than 10 miles from Lashkar Gah.
Since Sunday, the militants have also carried out attacks in Nawa District, the southern gate to Lashkar Gah. Nawa had remained one of only two safe districts in Helmand Province, according to internal Afghan government communications. Of Helmand’s 14 districts, the Afghan government considers four entirely under Taliban control, four facing a high threat of collapse, four with a medium threat but limited government activity, and only two as safe.
The tempo of fighting increased over the summer after a brief lull for the late-spring opium cultivation season. The escalation of the Taliban offensive this year was also slowed down by a leadership change after their supreme commander was killed by American drone strike in Pakistan.
But in that pattern, and in the intense escalation of fighting in recent weeks, this year looks much as last year did — a disastrous season of setbacks when the Taliban overran the northern provincial capital of Kunduz at the end of September and sent fear through other important cities. Also as they did last year, the insurgents are mounting offensives across several provinces to stretch the resources of an already struggling government and security establishment.
A report by ToloNews, Afghanistan’s largest news channel, found that insurgent attacks across the country had increased by 28 percent in July compared with the previous month, with Helmand Province remaining near the top. Over the same period, ground operations by Afghan forces decreased by 22 percent. But airstrikes conducted by United States and Afghan forces increased by more than 50 percent — including, for the first time in years, the reintroduction of American B-52 strategic bombers to the Afghan battlefield.
Officials said that most of those airstrikes were directed at Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan. But Afghan and American officials confirm that there has also been an increase in Helmand, where the Afghan forces have struggled to hold the line as the Taliban have drawn closer to Lashkar Gah.
Col. Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, the spokesman for the 215 Maiwand Corps of the Afghan Army, said, “We are going to weaken the enemy through airstrikes and then start ground offensives.”
Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the main spokesman for the United States military command in Afghanistan, confirmed that there had been an escalation in airstrikes in Helmand — up to two or three each day, he said.
But Gen. Aqa Noor Kentoz, the police chief of Helmand, said that the average had actually been more like six or seven airstrikes a day in the past couple of weeks, and that they had been having an important effect.
“For example, 11 airstrikes have been carried out by NATO forces since yesterday, and the Afghan forces are also conducting strikes,” General Kentoz said. “The airstrikes have busted the momentum of the Taliban; otherwise Taliban would have control of the provincial capital.”
Even amid reports of insurgents sending special units to Helmand, and Afghan commanders’ claims that insurgents have amassed from neighboring areas, the Taliban numbers in the province do not exceed 2,000 fighters, with only about 500 active, according to Abdul Jabar Qahraman. Mr. Qahraman recently quit as President Ashraf Ghani’s envoy overseeing the Helmand battle and since then has publicly uttered harsh and repeated criticism of the Afghan military leadership.
That the Afghan forces, which Mr. Qahraman said numbered “20 times more than the Taliban,” have struggled so badly in Helmand despite repeated changes of leadership and scrutiny from Kabul does not bode well at a time when there is no political resolution to the conflict in sight.
Mr. Qahraman attributed the failure of the government forces mainly to the military leadership’s deep corruption and the local people’s loss of trust in them, with many feeling less harassed under Taliban rule. Many of the military leaders sent to Helmand over the years have returned richer, while the situation has only deteriorated.
Relying on airstrikes, a quick fix that is quickly becoming the main tactic of defense, is unsustainable in the face of a resilient guerrilla force, he said.
“The U.S. and Afghan air forces are increasing the bombing of areas — it is ineffective,” Mr. Qahraman said. “This is not a war of tanks and artillery. It is a guerrilla war, and the government should deal with it that way. “
Copyright New York Times 2016