Taliban make gains in Helmand

Kabul, December 23

The Afghan government today rushed reinforcements to Helmand after Taliban militants captured large swathes of a strategic opium-producing district, prompting the first British troop deployment to the troubled province in 14 months.

The Islamists broke through the frontlines of Sangin district on Sunday after days of pitched clashes with besieged Afghan forces, tightening their grip on the southern province.

The Taliban began advancing on the district centre after storming government buildings, sending civilians fleeing as fears grew that the entire province was on the verge of falling to the insurgents.

Government reinforcements began arriving in Sangin after food and ammunition were air-dropped to besieged Afghan forces, deputy Helmand governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar told AFP today. “I am confident that we will not lose Sangin,” said Rasoolyar, just days after he warned that Helmand was teetering on the brink.

The war in Helmand, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, underscores worsening security across Afghanistan a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations. All but two of Helmand’s 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by Taliban insurgents.

Insurgents also recently overran Babaji, a suburb of Lashkar Gah, fuelling concern that the provincial capital could fall. Britain yesterday said a small contingent of its troops arrived in Camp Shorabak in Helmand to assist Afghan forces in an “advisory role”.

The deployment, in addition to a recent arrival of US special forces in the region, is the first since British troops ended their combat mission in Helmand in October 2014.

The latest unrest in Helmand comes as President Ashraf Ghani has made a diplomatic outreach to Pakistan — the Taliban’s historic backers — aimed at restarting peace talks with the insurgents.

Pakistan hosted a first round of negotiations in July but the talks stalled when the Taliban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar. A security official in Islamabad told AFP that Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif would travel to Kabul in the coming days, in what appears to be a renewed push to jumpstart talks.