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Helmand Hit by Summer Fighting

Militants hope to exploit security vacuum as international forces reduce presence.
By Gol Ahmad Ehsan

The Taleban's summer offensive has intensified as the insurgents probe the Afghan security forces’ defences ahead of the withdrawal of NATO troops forces.

The southern province of Helmand has been a particular focus, as the Taleban see any gains there as a major propaganda coup.

"Since security responsibility has been transferred to Afghan forces in most areas, the Taleban have been told they are close to victory and can defeat the Afghan forces,” said Helmand governor Mohammad Naim. “But that is a miscalculation, because government forces are far stronger than the Taleban and their morale is also very high.”

Naim added that the Taleban had carried out offensives in five districts, with particularly intense fighting in Sangin, where hostilities had lasted a week as the insurgents tried to block the construction of a new road between Sangin and Kajaki district.

“The Taleban intend to prevent the country’s reconstruction,” the governor said.

The violence also reached the provincial centre Lashkar Gah, as the Taleban fired rockets into the town.

Atiqullah Amarkhel, a defence expert and a former army general, said that in Helmand, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in recent years, any victories would boost the insurgents’ morale immensely.

"They can then tell their men they were able to defeat the US, British and Afghan forces and to take Helmand from them,” he said.

"Certain circles in Pakistan and Taleban leaders are spreading rumours that the foreign troops have already left… and that Afghan forces are incapable of mounting any defence,” interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. “They also tell students in religious schools [in Pakistan] that there are Indian soldiers in Afghanistan, so they must wage jihad against the Hindus. There are dozens of similar stories in circulation, intended to boost the Taleban's combat spirit.”

Sediqi insisted that the Taleban had in fact been beaten back in Helmand.

"I assure the people of Helmand that the situation is not going to deteriorate,” he concluded. “This is just psychological warfare by the Taleban.”

Despite repeated requests, a Taleban spokesman declined to be interviewed about the situation.

The summer offensive has also affected other parts of the country, including the capital where on May 24 Taleban fighters attacked the offices of the International Organisation for Migration, killing two civilians and a police officer and sparking street battles. Five days later, the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the eastern city of Jalalabad was attacked and a security guard was killed.

Hezbullah Khamosh, a political analyst and civil society activist in Helmand, said that the Taleban’s leadership intended to exploit any gaps exposed by the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, especially the lack of surveillance equipment, drones and firepower. Most NATO forces will be withdrawn by the end of next year.

Helmand has been under particular pressure for many years, partly due to its lengthy and porous border with Pakistan.

Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi told reporters recently that Pakistani religious seminaries had sent students off en masse to take part in the summer fighting in Afghanistan.

The security chief for Helmand, Colonel Gholam Rabbani, said the lush vegetation of summer served as perfect cover for guerrilla fighters, while poppy farmers also provided assistance to them. Helmand is one of the world’s largest producers of opium.

Helmand residents say they have observed some changes in Taleban tactics in recent months.

Mohebullah, from the Nawa district, said the use of mines and roadside bombs had significantly increased, and Taleban members seemed much better equipped with new weapons and vehicles.

“Taleban members buy new motorcycles every few months and get large sums of money,” he added. “And the local Taleban leaders have got new vehicles.”

Sayed Wali, a shop owner in the Nadali district, said the insurgents were also moderating the way they treated civilians.

"The Taleban used to harass men about the length of their beards, about wearing turbans and other things, but they don’t do that any more,” he said.

He said that when then the insurgents carried out punitive killings these days, they did so in secret rather than out in the open.

“People hated the Taleban and said they were cruel,” he said, “so now they’re trying to win over people’s hearts.’

Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.

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