World

Afghans say Taliban is close to seizing district

KABUL — Local Afghan officials say more than 200 police officers and soldiers have been killed during a fierce Taliban offensive in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan that has lasted all summer and now threatens to overwhelm a key district.

Officials at the national level have played down the violence and even, in some cases, flatly denied that there is a problem. But local military, police, and government officials, including two Afghan generals, have said in recent days they are unsure their forces can continue to hold out against the offensive.

The fighting has been underway since June in the Sangin district in northern Helmand and more recently in neighboring Musa Qala, unless they get more support from national authorities and international forces.

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The authorities are particularly worried about Musa Qala, a traditional Taliban stronghold and a source of revenue from the opium poppy trade.

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“The situation is deteriorating, and the Taliban are almost in the bazaar,” the governor of Musa Qala district, Haji-Mohammad Sharif, said Friday night when reached by telephone in the government center in Musa Qala. “If the situation remains the same, the district will soon fall to the hands of the Taliban.”

The fighting has been particularly heavy in Musa Qala over the past 10 days, while a simultaneous Taliban ground assault has been underway in Sangin. That was a renewal of an offensive the insurgents began in Sangin in June, with both sides committing large numbers of ground forces to the fight.

The Afghan National Army launched a counteroffensive in Sangin in July and August that pushed the insurgents away from the district capital, but in late August, the Taliban renewed their attack.

An Afghan army general familiar with the situation in Sangin spoke on the condition of anonymity because, he said, higher authorities did not want the seriousness of the situation publicized. He said the insurgents had launched 788 attacks in the past three months in Sangin and in two neighboring districts, Now Zad and Kajaki.

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In all, the general said, 71 Afghan National Army soldiers have been killed and 214 wounded since June, while 159 police have been killed and 219 wounded in the fighting.

The 230 dead among Afghan security forces in Sangin this summer exceeds the total killed in Sangin among the British Royal Marines and the US Marines in the entire war, about 150 in all. And both Britain and the United States lost more troops in Sangin than in any other Afghan district.

Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, offered a sharply lower estimate of the death toll Saturday, saying the number of dead and wounded was 900, including civilians, and about 150 of those were the Afghan police or soldiers. Zwak also said that while Taliban insurgents had been on the verge of attacking the Musa Qala government center in recent days, they had been beaten back, which the local governor disputed.

In the Musa Qala district, the governor there said, 50 police officers were killed or wounded, which is in addition to those killed in the Sangin fight. Both Musa Qala and Sangin have been heavily contested throughout the war because they are in green areas particularly suited to opium cultivation, with many places for insurgents to hide.

“Sangin is a key crossroads, the last place where the insurgent can grow, harvest, and process poppy,” Lieutenant General Richard P. Mills said in 2010 when he was the Marines’ commander in Helmand. “It is the last bit of important terrain in Helmand, and he is fighting hard to hold it.”

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The last of the US Marines left the area in May, with commanders declaring Sangin and Musa Qala largely pacified. But the Taliban began probing attacks in Musa Qala soon afterward and a full-scale offensive in Sangin the following month.

“If our forces do not get enough support and enough weapons and ammunition, the battle will get out of control in Sangin, and once the enemy [takes] control of the district, it will be even harder to get them out,” said General Juma Gul Himat, chief of Helmand police.