ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan’s military has downplayed the recent withdrawal of troops from bases in a restive southern province, saying “logistics” and “tactical” reasons prompted the move. This comes as Afghan, Pakistani, Chinese and U.S. officials prepare to meet in Kabul for a new round of four-way discussions to promote Afghan peace talks.
The military retreat over the past few days from Musa Qala and nearby Nawzad districts is said to have enabled the resurgent Taliban to further expand its influence in the largest Afghan province of Helmand.
Deputy Army Chief General Murad Ali Murad, while addressing a news conference in Kabul Monday, dismissed criticism Afghan forces have retreated from the area under pressure from the insurgents.
He asserted the troops had been engaged in combat operations for many months and they remained busy throughout the winter because the military was unable to send reinforcements to allow them to rest and see their families.
General Murad said that in view of the area commander’s recommendations, some Afghan forces were ordered to vacate their posts and relocate to a place where they could be retrained to improve their skills and get in touch with their families.
He went on to add that the move would allow the forces to better prepare for the coming spring fighting.
U.S. Army spokesman Col. Michael Lawhorn, when contacted by VOA, confirmed the decision by the Afghan army’s 215th Corps.
“Helmand continues to be a contentious area. The 215th Corps commander is making a tactical decision to reposition forces to fight the Taliban more effectively and to protect the Afghan people. The 215th is also reducing the number of checkpoints, which will result in more mobile forces,” he said.
Fighting has been raging for months in the poppy-growing province of Helmand and Taliban advances have allowed the insurgent group to control or influence most of its districts.
The worsening security situation and ongoing Taliban offensives have inflicted heavy casualties on civilians.
The Afghan Human Rights office in Helmand says 20 civilians have been killed and 250 others, including 159 children and 73 women, were wounded in the past two months.
The withdrawal of government forces, some critics say, could embolden the Taliban to stage an offensive in the nearby Kajaki district, where the United States has spent millions of dollars to construct a huge hydroelectric dam to enable local authorities provide power to Helmand and neighboring Kandahar provinces, both of them traditional Taliban heartlands.
The controversial move has fueled skepticism over the capacity of Afghan security forces to hold back the Taliban on their own after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.
The Islamist insurgency already controls or threatens around a third of Afghanistan in the wake of its territorial advances over the past year. The Taliban, however, has failed to capture major provincial centers other than briefly overrunning the northern city of Kunduz in September.
American military advisers are already in Helmand to advise, train and assist Afghan security forces and more U.S. troops were deployed to the troubled region in recent weeks to enhance the support mission.
Claims for recent blast
Meanwhile, a Taliban suicide bomber struck a police convoy in the northern Parwan province on Monday. The powerful explosion killed at least 13 people, including four officers.
In a statement sent to reporters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed it was behind the blast and senior police commanders were among those killed.
The violence comes as the diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China are expected to announce a date and venue for possible direct peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government negotiators. Officials from the four countries meet in Kabul Tuesday for a fourth round of their so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict.