KABUL — The Taliban have overrun a border district in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia and inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan security forces, officials said Saturday, as the insurgent fighters opened a new front in a once-volatile region.
Local officials expressed alarm that the attack in the Jani Khel district overnight Friday was led by fighters of the Haqqani network. The network, an arm of the insurgency based in Pakistan, is known for its urban assaults, and the officials say it is trying to create a foothold to reestablish its headquarters in Afghanistan.
Abdul Rahman Zurmati, Jani Khel’s governor, said his troops had been under siege for nine days. The district fell to the Taliban late Friday, he said, because his forces ran out of ammunition and reinforcements did not arrive.
“We were 90 people, and we had to fight against 1,200 Taliban,” Zurmati said in a phone interview. “Twenty-seven of my men have been killed. At first, some of them were wounded and we brought them to the main road, but then a land mine exploded and they were killed. We killed 130 of the enemy.”
Janat Khan Samkanai, the deputy head of the Paktia provincial council, said senior police officers and army generals were at the front line with reinforcements to try to retake the district.
Samkanai said the insurgents had gathered all of their fighters from across the province, and reinforced them with forces from across the border in Pakistan, to attack the district. He said an Afghan force of about 150 people had been trying to defend the mountainous terrain, and he bemoaned the lack of air support.
“After Jani Khel, they are focusing on the Samkani and Patan districts — they want to create territory and bring the Haqqani network groups back inside Afghanistan,” Samkanai said. He added that the Taliban had seized dozens of vehicles and weapons.
The most brutal wing of the insurgency, the Haqqani network had maintained a level of autonomy even as it had carried out some of the most daring attacks on high-profile targets.
But the network, believed to have the strongest links among insurgent groups to the Pakistani intelligence agency, which has been accused of using the Afghan insurgents as a proxy, has been increasingly integrated into the mainstream Taliban in recent years.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network’s de facto leader, was named a deputy to the Taliban’s supreme leader in the insurgency’s first leadership transition last year.
Haqqani’s influence grew as the Taliban went through another leadership change this spring, after their leader was killed in a US drone strike.
The new supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, lacks military experience, so Haqqani has played a major role in planning the Taliban’s day-to-day operations as the insurgency has made gains in the south and the north, Afghan and Western officials say.
This month, the Pentagon said it was withholding $300 million in military reimbursements to Pakistan because Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had concluded that the Pakistanis had not taken “sufficient action against the Haqqani network.”
The establishment of a foothold for the Haqqani operation in southeastern Afghanistan could mean an increase in high-profile attacks in Kabul, the capital, as well as further instability in the southeastern region.