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Reports conflict on Afghan battle in Helmand

Coalition plays down account by government

KABUL — The Taliban attacked Afghan police posts in a violent and long-contested corner of southern Afghanistan, setting off two days of clashes that left at least six police officers dead, Afghan officials said Tuesday, though the US-led coalition played down the violence as little more than “drive-by shootings.”

The Afghan government portrayed the fighting in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, which began Monday, as a major victory for its forces, with officials describing a massive Taliban effort to overrun the area. Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, put the number of attackers at 1,000 and said Arab and Chechen insurgents — that is, Al Qaeda members — were fighting alongside the Taliban.

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The Taliban also said they were engaged in a broad assault on Sangin, saying in a text message to reporters that insurgents had overrun three police posts and were close to taking more.

The coalition, though, was far more circumspect about the scale of the fighting. It said the Taliban force totaled 80 to 100 fighters and managed to launch only sporadic attacks on outlying police posts in the district.

Ten groups of eight to 10 Taliban fighters were “doing drive-by shootings against five police checkpoints,” said Colonel Thomas Collins, a coalition spokesman. “None of the checkpoints were overrun.”

Another coalition official added that US Marines, who still maintain a sizable presence in the district, would have joined the fight had the Taliban presented any significant threat, and coalition air power would probably have been called in had the Taliban massed in numbers as large as those described by Afghan officials. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly disagreeing with his Afghan counterparts.

The Taliban have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan Army and police since the start of the annual fighting season. They say that a broad summer offensive that will expose the weakness of the Afghan security forces is underway, and that they have managed to inflict significant casualties. At least six Afghan police officers were killed in the past two days in Sangin, for instance, according to Haji-Ghulam Ali Khan, the district police chief.

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But the most dramatic battles between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces seem to be those portrayed by their spokesmen for media consumption, with both sides saying they scored hard-fought victories over the other.

This week’s fighting in Sangin could well prove to be part of the intensifying propaganda war. The district was the scene of fierce fighting by British troops and US Marines to root out the insurgents, and both the Taliban and the Afghan government would benefit from declaring a victory there.

But if the Taliban’s attack this week consisted mainly of sending small bands to harass police posts, as the coalition asserted, it would hardly count as a significant victory for either side.

It would instead seem to indicate that the insurgents do not have the strength or the will to threaten the entire district with a head-on assault, and that the security forces there have yet to be tested by a big attack. Afghan officials, however, were adamant that their forces had repulsed a huge Taliban attack.

The fighting had begun early Monday, and Afghan soldiers were called in to help repulse the attacks, Khan said. Some police were still engaged in isolated firefights, but order had been restored in most of the district, he said, adding that the Marines were not needed at any point in the fighting.

“Taliban, with their great forces, attacked the boundary in which the security check posts surround the district center and some of the check posts are still under their constant firefighting,” he said. “We don’t know exactly how many Taliban have been killed. I can say they are losing their men.”

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