One Hundred U.S. Soldiers


by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Kabul for The Guardian

22 August 2016


More than a hundred US troops have been sent to Lashkar Gah to help prevent the Taliban from overrunning the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in what is thought to be the first US deployment to the embattled city since foreign troops withdrew in 2014.

Since late July, the Taliban have seized new territory across Helmand, defying a series of about 30 US airstrikes, and raising concern of an attack on the capital. The militants have also stepped up attacks in the country’s north, closing in on Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year.

“This is a big effort by the Taliban. This is probably the most serious push we’ve seen of the season,” Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters on Monday.

Cleveland called the US reinforcement in Helmand a “temporary effort” to advise the Afghan police, though he declined to say how long it was expected to last, citing “security reasons”.

“They’re not about to go out and conduct operations or something like that,” Cleveland said.

Neither did he specify the exact number of troops, but said they numbered “about a hundred”. Sources in Helmand believe about 130 US troops have arrived at the airport where they will be based.

The most significant Taliban advances have been Nawa and Nad Ali districts, a stone’s throw west of Lashkar Gah, where the government retain control of only a few administrative buildings.

The situation has become so bad that civilian elders of Nawa, traditionally one of Helmand’s most peaceful districts, have asked the provincial governor for weapons to join the fight, said Wali Mohammad, a villager from that district.

The Taliban also continue to block parts of the main highway leading north from Lashkar Gah, said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, spokesman of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps. He said the road would take days to clear because it had been heavily mined.

In recent days, the Taliban have also closed in on Baghlan province, as well as Kunduz, the northern city they seized for two weeks last year, where a US airstrike destroyed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma centre.

On Saturday, government forces were briefly pushed out of the nearby Khanabad district. Fighting has already forced families to flee, as they did barely one year ago.

In Helmand, MSF has relocated part of its international staff from Lashkar Gah.

The uptick in violence has caused the Afghan army to send senior commanders around the country in a flurry to boost morale. Efforts have concentrated on Helmand, where government forces have reportedly fled the battlefield when faced with attacks, despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban.

Meanwhile, as soldiers and police are looking to commanders for military guidance, the political leadership in Kabul is on the brink of disaster as well.

In a rare public outburst, President Ashraf Ghani’s government partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, recently lashed out at the president for neglecting him, calling him “unfit” to rule the country.



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.



Corrupt Leaders Blunt Afghan Army


by Richard Sisk

Jan 20, 2016 (nearly a month ago)


The Taliban has taken over “some” districts in Afghanistan’s flashpoint Helmand province as Afghanistan National Army (ANA) units struggle against their own corrupt leadership and desertions in the ranks, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul said Tuesday.

The fight in Helmand, center of the poppy and heroin trade and a main source of funding for the Taliban, has resulted in the loss of several areas to the enemy but Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner repeatedly declined to name them.

When asked several times where the lost districts were, Shoffner said it was “hard to specify exactly how many at any given time. But there are some that — where the Taliban have control.”

“Again, those districts that we’re talking about, things change rapidly. And I’ll leave it that they are contested. It’s difficult to pin down an exact number that are under Taliban control at any given time. They do go back and forth,” Shoffner said.

Earlier, Shoffner had been specific in discussing Afghanistan as a whole. “Afghanistan has 404 districts in total. We assess that right now, the Taliban have control of only nine of those districts. We assess they have influence in about 17 others.”

In Helmand, “the area in and around Marjah remains a contested area, and that’s as far as I’ll go there,” said Shoffner, deputy chief of communications for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and main spokesman for Army Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander.

Marjah in central Helmand was the focal point of the U.S. Marine offensive in 2010 that took back control of the area from the Taliban. Marjah was also the scene earlier this month of the battle in which Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Q McClintock was killed as a U.S. Special Forces team went to the aid of Afghan forces.

In a video briefing to the Pentagon from Kabul, Shoffner said efforts to counter the Taliban’s offensive in Helmand, which began last October, have been hampered by the poor morale and leadership of the ANA’s 215th Corps, the main unit in the province.

“I can tell you that in the 215th Corps, the corps commander has been switched out, two of the brigade commanders in the 215th Corps have been changed out, as have several members, key members, of the staff,” Shoffner said.

As for the previous leaders of the 215th Corps, Shoffner said “we had some individuals who were corrupt” in how they handled pay for the troops and equipment.

In discussing the 215th Corps, Shoffner ran through a litany of organizational, equipment and leadership problems that U.S. advisers have been attempting to address within the ANA since the U.S. entered Afghanistan in force in late 2001.

In the 215th Corps, “they had problems with equipment maintenance. They had problems with units that had been attrited. They had problems with poor leadership. What we have found when units have an issue with attrition, it typically is traced back to poor leadership,” Shoffner said. Overall, the ANA was short about 25,000 troops because of desertions, he said.

“These are important changes, and those new leaders are still going through the process of establishing themselves,” Shoffner said of the 215th Corps.

Overall in 2015, the first year in which the ANA was on its own in the fight against the Taliban, the ANA had “mixed results” in its operations, Shoffner said.

The ANA did “fairly well” in operations that were planned beforehand, but had difficulty in responding quickly to a crisis, he said.



British Deploy A Few More To Helmand


by Lynne O’Donnell

Kabul, Afghanistan

Associated Press via ABC News

Dec 22, 2015


When Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani took office, it ushered in a period of hope for the country’s traumatized people that decades of violence would soon end. But just one year later, a mood of crisis prevails: British troops are being sent to help the army maintain control of a strategically important district and many Afghans believe the Taliban are winning.

The announcement that British soldiers are being dispatched to Helmand Province came hours after a Taliban suicide bomber killed six U.S. troops near a major military base in the deadliest single attack on American troops in the country since 2013.

A British Ministry of Defense statement late Monday said “a small number of U.K. personnel” were being sent to Helmand in “an advisory role.” The U.K. has 450 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s training mission.

Security has worsened across the country as the Taliban test the mettle of Afghan security forces following the end of the international combat mission last year. While they don’t typically hold any territory they win for more than a few hours or days, the Taliban have dealt a massive blow to the confidence of the over-stretched Afghan forces, who are fighting the insurgency almost alone for the first time. Officials have said casualties, as well as attrition and desertion, have taken a toll on numbers of government forces, while the Taliban strength seems never to diminish.

Fighting has raged between Taliban and Afghan forces in Helmand’s Sangin district, where an official said the district’s army base was the only area that had not fallen to the Taliban. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The spokesman for the Helmand governor, Omar Zwaq, said government troops were able to deliver supplies to those holed up inside mid-afternoon Tuesday. But, he added, there was no let-up in the fight for Sangin.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf said the siege continued “and the government will soon announce their defeat.”

Helmand is important to the Taliban. The lush southern province is home to endless poppy fields and the source of almost all the world’s opium, which helps fund the insurgency. The head of Helmand’s provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control.

There are currently about 13,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 9,800 Americans, with a mandate to “train, assist and advise” their Afghan counterparts. That’s compared to 140,000 foreign troops at the peak of combat operations in 2011.

Officials see no traditional winter slowdown in the insurgents’ quest to overthrow the Kabul government, especially in the warmer southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. They expect tough fighting in 2016 as what the Pentagon last week called an “invigorated Taliban” steps up its fight.

At the same time, Ghani’s government appears paralyzed by indecision and a lack of political intelligence that sees him use public appearances to deliver lectures but remains incapable of permanently filling vital security posts such as defense and intelligence, both of which are run by acting ministers.

This week, a senior official said he was unable to reach Ghani and resorted to Facebook to warn of the Taliban’s encroachment on Sangin. Hundreds of Afghan security forces have been killed fighting the Taliban across the province in the past six months, Helmand’s deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar said.

It wasn’t the first time an official used social media to send a message to the president — former intelligence agency chief Rahmatullah Nabil used his Facebook page earlier this month to resign.

Political analyst Haroun Mir said such incidents were an indication of “how remote the political elite have become from the reality on the ground,” obsessed with infighting and intrigue rather than fixing the country’s problems.

The cry for help from Rasulyar finally galvanized the government into action. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called the Helmand situation a “top priority” and commandoes and special forces were sent to save Sangin from an insurgent takeover.

It also appears to have prompted Britain’s Ministry of Defense to announce the deployment of its own troops to the region to help fight for Sangin, where Britain lost more than 100 of its 456 fatalities during its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan. It was not clear if U.S. troops were involved in the effort to protect Sangin but a NATO official said there had been no U.S. airstrikes on Sangin throughout December.

Mir compared Helmand to Kunduz, the northern Afghan city that the Taliban took over and held for three days in September, sending shockwaves across a country that had come to believe the insurgents were not strong enough to take urban areas.

Now, people are starting to believe the Taliban are indeed stronger than the government. With insurgents on the outskirts of Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, and districts across the province either in Taliban hands or threatened with takeover, “it’s time for the president to recognize that he is not an academic anymore, he is a war president and he has to tell the people what he can do. And do something,” Mir said.

The Afghan Ministry of Interior confirmed Tuesday that British troops had arrived at Camp Shorabak, formally the U.S. Marines’ Camp Leatherneck.

Afghan forces “need to strengthen their capacity and improve coordination,” Sediq Sediqqi, the ministry’s spokesman told reporters.

He said the main reason for the delay in sending reinforcements to the area was because of its remoteness and, during the summer months, the punishing climate.

“Taking on the responsibility for security from NATO and other international troops was a huge challenge for us,” Sediqqi said, speaking of the Afghan troops who now shoulder full responsibility for the country’s security.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell said recently that the Afghan forces were still challenged by practical issues such as logistics, as well as lagging confidence.

“There are some places in Helmand they do think the Taliban are 10 feet tall, that they are better trained, they got better weapons,” Campbell told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month. “It is a confidence thing.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Monday suicide attack on U.S. troops that killed six near Bagram Air Field near Kabul. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were also wounded when the bomber drove his explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol.

The Department of Defense released a statement announcing the deaths and gave their identities:

Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, of Plymouth, Minnesota. She was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 9th Field Investigations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 816, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Georgia. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Technical Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of Bronx, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

Monday was the deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan since May 2013, when five were killed by a roadside bomb in the country’s south and two killed by an Afghan soldier in an insider attack in the west. Before Monday’s attack, the most recent American casualties in the country were on Aug. 22, when three contractors were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul.


Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Humayoon Babur in Kabul and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this story.



Some Schools Reopen In Helmand


by Mohammad Ilyas Dayee & Abubakar Siddique

Gandhara News

November 23, 2015


In a rare show of cooperation, the Afghan Taliban have allowed the government to reopen schools in territories it overran after bloody battles earlier this year.

Afghan officials say they have struck an informal agreement with Taliban insurgents to reopen 51 schools in two districts of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Abdul Mateen Jaffar, Helmand’s director of education, says the insurgents recently sent him a letter expressing their willingness to let his department reopen 51 schools in Helmand’s Nad-e Ali and Marjah districts. The Taliban overran large parts of the two districts earlier this year.

Jaffar says the schools are expected to reopen later this week. “I hope all of Helmand’s schools will reopen. If we succeed in these two districts and the insurgents remain true to their commitments, then a single school will not remain shut across Helmand,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Jaffar says the next step will be to open all of the 150-plus schools across seven Helmand districts. A violent Taliban offensive aimed at grabbing territory in Nad-e Ali, Marjah, Nawzad, Sangin, Washir, Kajaki, and Musa Qala districts prevented tens of thousands of students in these regions from attending schools since the spring.

“We are now reaching out to the senior Taliban commanders in these districts. Our aim is to persuade them to let us open every school,” he said. “I am very grateful to them [the Taliban] for pushing all our teachers to regularly teach in schools in parts of Kajaki district, which they control.”

The Taliban have not commented on the cooperation but in recent years have distanced themselves from targeting and destroying schools.

The unprecedented cooperation is a rare piece of good news for Helmand’s estimated 1 million residents. The region has witnessed a dramatic uptick in violence since the beginning of this year when insurgents ramped up their attacks against fledgling government forces.

The strategic province of Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest, shares a border with Pakistan and is in close proximity with Iran. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of NATO and Afghan troops, the region has remained a key battleground for the past decade.

Observers say the region’s status as the top global producer of opium fuels violence in the province. Helmand has served as the main recruiting ground for the Taliban since their emergence two decades ago.

Locals say that after the departure of most NATO troops last year, Afghan government control in most restive Helmand districts has been limited to district centers.


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