ISLAMABAD - Government officials and insurgent sources in southern Afghanistan say at least 70 Afghan soldiers have defected to the Taliban while 85 others were killed in days of fierce fighting.
Mirza Khan Rahimi, governor of the volatile Helmand province, told reporters Saturday that the defections occurred in Sangin district, and that the soldiers joined the Taliban with their weapons and equipment.
The southern Afghan province has been a traditional heartland of the Taliban where clashes between insurgents and Afghan security forces have been raging in several districts for nearly a month, including Lashkar Gah, Marjah.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, said five Afghan national army commanders are among the soldiers who “repented their mistakes and surrendered to Mujahideen (Taliban fighters)” along with five armored personnel carriers, weapons and ammunition.
Afghan security forces have suffered heavy casualties during this fighting season as they are fighting the Taliban without international ground and air support.
Insurgency has expanded
The Islamist insurgency has expanded its violent campaign to many parts of Afghanistan and briefly overran the key northern city of Kunduz in September.
The deteriorating security and rising civilian casualties have prompted sharp public criticism of President Ashraf Ghani, leading to large anti-government demonstrations.
Afghan military commanders blame withdrawal of U.S.-led military surveillance and close air support for the battlefield setbacks.
On Friday, Ghani spoke by video conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to discuss issues regarding the existing capacity and capability of Afghan Security and and Defense Forces, according to a presidential statement.
It said that “the president stressed the need to strengthen the Afghan Air Force … and talked about plans and measures to further strengthen these forces and equip and train them.”