LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan forces battled on Wednesday to push back Taliban fighters who have overrun Sangin in Helmand province and officials denied insurgents’ claims that police and administrative buildings in the district center had fallen.
Earlier Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai said reinforcements had arrived in the area where government forces were preparing operations to push back the Taliban.
“The military is in position and the operation is ongoing,” Stanekzai told a news conference in Kabul, adding that reinforcements would to relieve troops in Sangin.
The Taliban said in an online statement that the district center of Sangin had been completely overrun with large quantities of weapons and equipment captured but army spokesman Mohammad Rasoul Zarzai dismissed the claims as “baseless”.
Although much attention has been focused on Sangin, fierce fighting has been underway across much of Helmand, a traditional stronghold of the Taliban and a major center for opium that U.S. and British troops fought for years to control.
“There is fighting here every day and whenever people come to the bazaar for shopping they get killed,” said shopkeeper Musa Khan, in Marjah district, near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
The crisis in Helmand has piled pressure on the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which was rocked by the fall of the northern city of Kunduz, seized by Taliban fighters in late September and held for several days.
Government forces have complained bitterly of inadequate supplies and reinforcements and little of the air power that backed up NATO forces when they fought in the region.
Although the Taliban already hold three districts in Helmand, Sangin’s status resonates because of the hundreds of British and U.S. soldiers and marines killed and wounded while fighting in the district.
Its loss by Afghan forces, left alone since international forces ended combat operations last year, would raise major questions for Western governments over the strategic direction of the war and the billions of dollars in aid provided to Kabul.
Stanekzai pleaded for patience, saying Afghan forces were fighting without the extensive array of tactical “enablers” from close air support and helicopters to surveillance assets that NATO troops had used when they were involved.
“Building an army is not the work of two years, three years or four years. It is a young army, it needs maturity,” he said. “When the British and U.S. forces were there, how many enablers did they have? How many jets did they have, how many helicopters and how many do we have today?”
There have been widespread reports of desertion by Afghan troops after months of fighting, leadership confusion and a lack of coordination between army and police units.
Military advisers from Britain have joined other NATO advisers in Helmand to help Afghan forces who have struggled to contain the insurgency since foreign troops withdrew from combat operations last year.
NATO officials say the troops sent to Helmand are not taking a direct part in combat and they have not confirmed reports that special forces were among the advisers. The Taliban said the reinforcements showed the government’s desperation.
“The Kabul administration cannot protect themselves without foreigners and the nation does not accept that,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for Taliban, said in a statement
On Sunday, the province’s deputy governor issued a highly unusual public plea via Facebook, warning that Helmand would fall unless immediate action were taken and urging Ghani, who visited Azerbaijan on Tuesday, to come to see for himself.
Helmand is not the only province where the Taliban have made gains. On Wednesday, a spokesman said insurgents had captured the district of Gulistan in Farah, a remote western province that, like Helmand, is a major center of opium cultivation.
District governor Asif Nang rejected the claim as “baseless”. He said the district governor’s headquarters, very often the final outpost standing when districts are considered to have been captured, had simply been relocated.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel/Ruth Pitchford