ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - U.S. and Afghan officials report that they have made a strategic retreat from a district headquarters that has been under heavy assault by Taliban forces, however, the governor of the embattled province says local forces remain in control of the area.
Sangin district in southern Helmand province has been one of the most contested parts of Afghanistan for years, with scores of Afghan, British and American forces dying to protect a key transit point that has played a crucial role in the illicit opium trade.
The Taliban announced Thursday that its fighters assaulted the administrative center of the Sangin district overnight, forcing Afghan forces to flee the area. A Taliban spokesman claimed the insurgents were in control of the town, outposts around it and the area police headquarters.
Provincial governor Hayatullah Hayat rejected those claims, telling VOA by phone late Thursday that Afghan forces merely withdrew from a two-kilometer long market in the district and a destroyed government building. He added that Afghan military and police personnel have only withdrawn from the marketplace at the request of besieged residents around it.
“At this stage when I am talking to you we have hundreds of the Afghan national forces in Sangin and they are in a better position to combat the enemy. This step [pulling back forces] was taken only to avoid civilian casualties and to facilitate the situation for the civilians to start their business and also to go back to their houses,” asserted Hayat.
He said that the situation in the Sangin district is currently “calm” with hundreds of Afghan National Army and police forces as well as operatives of the national intelligence agency present there “to prepare to combat the enemy.”
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said the district's headquarters had sustained heavy damage in recent fighting, rendering it unusable and inaccessible to the local residents. Captain William Salvin, a spokesman for U.S. forces and NATO’s Resolute Support mission, told VOA that U.S. forces helped airlift Afghan personnel and equipment to the new district center, some two kilometers away.
After the transfer was complete, Salvin said Afghan and U.S. aircraft bombed some buildings and destroyed some 30 inoperable vehicles "to reduce them completely so that they couldn't be used or be a safety hazard to civilians."
Captain Salvin said he is unaware of any immediate plans to retake the old district center.
Provincial military officials maintain that Afghan National Army personnel staged a “tactical retreat” from the town, and relocated to their nearby main army base.
A number of districts in Helmand, the largest Afghan province, are under the control or influence of the Taliban.
A group of 300 U.S. Marines is due to arrive in Afghanistan later this year for deployment in the troubled province to help local forces reverse insurgent gains.
Concerns over Russian involvement
The insurgent advances come as Russia prepares to host a meeting of regional nations next month to discuss trying to encourage peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United States has reportedly also been invited and there are reports of outreach to try to persuade the insurgent group to attend.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has denied reports the group will respond “positively” if invited to Moscow talks on April 14.
“When an invitation is extended to us only then we can consider it and comment on it,” Mujahid told VOA.
The Taliban have long refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, calling it a “puppet” of the United States.
The Russia-initiated dialogue on Afghanistan, however, continues to cause concerns in Kabul and Washington.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Thursday, U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the Commander of the U.S. European Command, expressed concern over Russian involvement in Afghanistan.
“I’ve seen the influence of Russia, of late, an increased influence in terms of association, and perhaps even supply, to the Taliban,” he told American lawmakers.
Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani also expressed concerns over Russia’s ties with the Taliban during a visit to Washington this week.
“Establishing contacts with these terrorist groups will give them a wrong message and they will think that the international community is recognizing them,” Rabbani said in an interview to the New Atlanticist.
This, in turn, would undercut a peace and reconciliation process because the Taliban “will not be encouraged to come to the negotiating table,” noted the Afghan minister.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials say a police officer suspected of links to the Taliban shot dead nine police personnel in the northern Kunduz province late Wednesday and later fled to the insurgent group. Local officials said the incident occurred at a security outpost around the provincial capital and the shooter seized weapons and other equipment.
The Taliban claimed their fighters attacked the outpost and killed 10 Afghan personnel, capturing their weapons and equipment. Afghan troops and police forces have in recent months suffered several deadly, so-called insider attacks.
Last week, an Afghan soldier shot and wounded three U.S. military personnel during a training session at an army base in Helmand. The attacker was shot dead.