ISLAMABAD - The commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan together with the country’s defense minister Saturday traveled to a nearly besieged southern Afghan city and assured residents they would not let it fall to the Taliban.
The visit to Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, the largest Afghan province, came after overnight battlefield advances brought the insurgents extremely close to the city.
A security source told VOA the Taliban captured four outposts around the provincial capital and both sides suffered heavy casualties in the fighting. He refused to give any figures for Afghan security forces.
The fighting in the area raged into Saturday, raising fears among residents the insurgents are about to force their way into the town.
General John Nicholson, commander of NATO's Resolute Support mission told tribal elders in Lashkar Gah that international air power and enablers will be available to Afghan security forces. He promised the city will never fall to the opposition. He added that his coalition will increase consultant missions to help Afghan army and police personnel to improve the situation in Helmand.
“The Afghan government and security forces are getting stronger each day and eventually they will be able to secure the entire province,” Nicholson said.
Standing with Afghanistan
He reiterated that Afghan forces have secured most of the population centers throughout Afghanistan and explained to the elders it will take more time before the Taliban are expelled from the country.
“We are building an army while we are fighting a war. But because of the belief of the international community in the Afghan people, in the government and in how hard the security forces are fighting, the international community is standing with Afghanistan,” the general said.
Afghan Defense Minister General Abdullah Habibi promised the gathering new security operations will launch soon to push back the Taliban and retake control of other areas in the province.
A number of residents in Lashkar Gah told VOA that they are “extremely worried” about their safety and could not sleep all night because of clashes and heavy gunfire.
The Afghan government is believed to be in full control of only two of Helmand’s 14 districts.
Separately, sporadic clashes have continued to rage in the embattled northern Afghan city of Kunduz for a sixth day on Saturday.
Afghan officials requesting anonymity confirmed to VOA that two soldiers were mistakenly killed and several others wounded in overnight airstrikes by government helicopters against Taliban positions. The air raid in Bala Hesar area inside Kunduz was reportedly conducted in defense of Afghan forces who came under attack from the insurgents.
Confusion on casualties
The Afghan defense ministry has denied killing of any soldiers in the attack, saying an investigation is underway to ascertain details.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed a U.S. aircraft carried out the attack that killed at least nine Afghan soldiers and wounded 30 others but no harm was done to Taliban fighters.
It was not possible to ascertain authenticity of the insurgent claims and the U.S. military has not yet commented on the development. It has acknowledged carrying out airstrikes this week in defense of Afghan forces in Kunduz.
Afghan military commanders are reported to have confirmed that dozens of border police personnel surrendered to the Taliban Friday night in Bala Murghab district of northwestern province of Badghis.
Local officials and politicians told reporters the insurgents had besieged the police base for several days before they surrendered. Taliban ambushes and landmines prevented supplies and reinforcements from reaching the area, which borders Turkmenistan.
Separately, a U.S. government watchdog reported Friday its concerns over reports of thousands of Afghan non-existent or “ghost” soldiers and police personnel on the payroll of the Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF).
John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), conveyed his concerns through a letter he recently wrote to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Persistent reports indicating discrepancies between the assigned force strength of the ANDSF and the actual number of personnel serving raise questions regarding whether the U.S. government is taking adequate steps to prevent taxpayer funds from being spent on so-called “ghost” soldiers,” Sopk wrote.
Local media have quoted the new Afghan police chief of Helmand saying that of the approximately 26,000 ANDSF personnel assigned to the province “40 to 50 percent of the force did not exist physically when we asked for help during operations,” Sopko noted.
ANDSF is believed to be losing thousands of personnel because of heavy casualties it is suffering in the battlefield and to a high attrition rate. There are concerns salaries of these soldiers as well as those of “ghost" personnel are going to the pockets of corrupt Afghan leaders.
Sopko acknowledged the Pentagon, in responding to his questions, has outlined actions it is taking to improve the systems used for ANDSF personnel management.
The U.S. government has allocated more than $68 billion since 2002 to creating and funding ANDSF to fight the Taliban and provide national security. But recent battlefield setbacks have raised questions about the capacity of the Afghan forces.