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Afghans Say Taliban Are Nearing Control of Key District

Local Afghan officials say more than 200 police officers and soldiers have been killed during a fierce Taliban offensive in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan that has lasted all summer and now threatens to overwhelm a key district.

Officials at the national level have played down the violence and even, in some cases, flatly denied that there is a problem. But local military, police and government officials, including two Afghan generals, have said in recent days that they are unsure their forces can continue to hold out against the offensive, which has been underway since June in the Sangin district in northern Helmand and more recently in neighboring Musa Qala, unless they get more support from national authorities and international forces.

The authorities are particularly worried about Musa Qala, a traditional Taliban stronghold and a source of revenue from the lucrative opium poppy trade.

"The situation is deteriorating and the Taliban are almost in the bazaar," the governor of Musa Qala district, Haji-Mohammad Sharif, said Friday night when reached by telephone in the government center in Musa Qala. "If the situation remains the same, the district will soon fall to the hands of the Taliban."

The fighting has been particularly heavy in Musa Qala over the past 10 days, while a simultaneous Taliban ground assault has been underway in Sangin. That was a renewal of an offensive the insurgents began in Sangin in June, with both sides committing large numbers of ground forces to the fight.

The Afghan National Army launched a counteroffensive in Sangin in July and August that pushed the insurgents away from the district capital, but in late August the Taliban renewed their attack. An Afghan Army general familiar with the situation in Sangin, speaking on the condition of anonymity because, he said, higher authorities did not want the seriousness of the situation publicized, said that the insurgents had launched 788 attacks in the past three months in Sangin and in two neighboring districts, Now Zad and Kajaki.

In all, the general said, 71 Afghan National Army soldiers have been killed and 214 wounded since June, while 159 police officers have been killed and 219 wounded in the Sangin district.

That 230 dead among Afghan security forces in Sangin this summer exceeds the total killed in Sangin among the British Royal Marines and the United States Marines in the entire war, about 150 in all. And both Britain and the United States lost more troops in Sangin than in any other Afghan district.

Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand Province, offered a sharply lower estimate of the death toll on Saturday, saying that the number of dead and wounded was 900, including civilians, and that about 150 of those were the Afghan police or soldiers. Mr. Zwak also said that while Taliban insurgents had been on the verge of attacking the Musa Qala government center in recent days, they had been beaten back, which the local governor disputed.

In the Musa Qala district, according to the governor there, 50 police officers were killed or wounded, which is in addition to those killed in the Sangin fight. Both Musa Qala and Sangin have been heavily contested throughout the war because they are in green areas particularly suited to opium cultivation, with many places for insurgents to hide.

"Sangin is a key crossroads, the last place where the insurgent can grow, harvest and process poppy," Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills said in 2010 when he was the Marines' commander in Helmand. "It is the last bit of important terrain in Helmand, and he is fighting hard to hold it."

The last of the American Marines left the area in May, with their commanders declaring Sangin and Musa Qala largely pacified. But the Taliban began probing attacks in Musa Qala soon afterward, and a full-scale offensive in Sangin the following month.

"If our forces do not get enough support and enough weapons and ammunition, the battle will get out of control in Sangin, and once the enemy take control of the district, it will be even harder to get them out." said Gen. Juma Gul Himat, chief of Helmand's provincial police department.

General Himat complained that the American-led coalition, known officially as the International Security Assistance Force, had not provided air support. "We have requested air support from NATO hundreds of times but they are not responding positively," he said.

A spokesman for the coalition, Maj. Paul L. Greenberg of the Marine Corps, said air support had been given to Afghan forces in Sangin. "ISAF has received those requests and ISAF has provided aviation support accordingly in Sangin District over the past several months, to include support over the past several weeks," he said.

But General Himat said that national and international forces had failed to respond to pleas from northern Helmand for more support, heavy equipment and reinforcements. "We have shared our problems with higher authorities and the Ministry of Interior itself, but they are also lacking equipment, so we are asking the international community not to leave us alone, and provide what we need to fight our enemies," the general said.

General Himat and other officials in Helmand said the Taliban had a great deal of support from criminal elements protecting the lucrative opium trade in northern Helmand, and he claimed that both Iranian and Pakistani terrorists were fighting in the area.

Afghan National Army officials in Helmand also said that coalition forces had provided air support where needed. Mohammad Rasool Zazai, a spokesman for the army's 215th Corps, based in Helmand, said that Afghan helicopters and planes were being used in Sangin and that the coalition had not yet been asked to intervene there, although the Americans had been providing air support in other parts of the province. "If we need their support in Sangin, we will ask them," he said.

In Kabul, Gen. Dawlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, also insisted that there was no crisis in northern Helmand.

"Our military brigades are in the districts of Sangin and Musa Qala, and the situation is normal," he said. "Although there are sometimes militants carrying out hit-and-run attacks, they are not something to be worried about, because it is something that normally happens."

Emanuele Nannini, program coordinator for the Italian charity Emergency, which recently expanded its hospital for war victims in Helmand to 95 beds from 70, said, "It's clear they are fighting more."

"Now it's really fighting," Mr. Nannini added. "They're not just attacking and escaping; on many, many occasions they are facing each other."

Dimitra Giannakopoulou, the medical coordinator at the Emergency Hospital in Helmand, said the striking thing about the past several months was how sustained the fighting appeared to be, with a steady stream of the wounded coming in daily, rather than in spurts as had previously been the case.

The volume has been so great that on two occasions, once in June and once again last week, the hospital has had to turn away some new patients, only accepting those whose wounds were life-threatening, Ms. Giannakopoulou said.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, said the insurgents were using more ground assaults in northern Helmand because they no longer had to worry about airstrikes from American and British forces.

[Source: By Rod Nordland and Taimoor Shah, The New York Times, Kabul, 06Sep14]

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