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British Forces Rush to Help Afghans Hold Off Taliban in Helmand

Besieged Afghan forces were struggling to head off a complete Taliban takeover of the critical southern district of Sangin on Tuesday, and a new deployment of British troops was rushed in to help direct an increasingly pressed battle across the surrounding province of Helmand.

A small contingent of British forces in an advisory role arrived at Camp Shorabak, the largest British military base in Afghanistan before it was handed over to the Afghan forces last year, Britain's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

"They are not deployed in a combat role and will not deploy outside the camp," the statement said.

The new deployment, which Afghan officials said included about 40 people, was in addition to an influx of American Special Operations forces that deployed to Helmand when the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, was on the verge of falling several weeks ago.

The Western deployment comes as Sangin, a Taliban stronghold for years, appeared close to a complete takeover by the Taliban after weeks of heavy fighting there and in neighboring districts.

Ebadullah Alizai, a member of the provincial council in Helmand, said much of the Sangin district center was under Taliban control, with an Afghan Army unit surrounded and in urgent need of reinforcements.

But attempts to get the extra troops to Sangin were being slowed by roadside bombs, he said.

Sangin has been one of the deadliest Afghan battlegrounds for British and American troops throughout the war. Within months of the NATO transfer of security control to Afghan forces there, the district began coming under heavy insurgent pressure.

The Afghan forces have been mostly penned into their bases there over the past year. But in recent weeks, the situation became even worse, as police forces began taking witheringly heavy casualties, Afghan officials said. By Tuesday, the remaining police contingent and members of the civilian government had retreated from the district center and were surrounded at an army base about two miles away, said Abdul Bashir Shakir, head of the security committee at the provincial council.

"The reinforcements have been sent, but heavy I.E.D.s about four kilometers from the district center stopped their approach," Mr. Shakir said.

Still, officials said there were no coalition forces in Sangin itself, as they were focused on assisting the broader fight across Helmand Province.

The Taliban has made huge strides in its Helmand offensive this year. For months, Afghan forces have been struggling to repel Taliban advances across several districts, including Khan Neshin, Gereshk, Marja, Kajaki and Washir. The insurgents have made it as close as three miles from Lashkar Gah, in the suburb of Babaji, where fighting has gone on for weeks.

"We have severe challenges in 13 districts, only Garmsir and Nawa districts are calm at the moment," Mr. Alizai said.

The largest province in Afghanistan in terms of territory, Helmand holds great symbolic value both to the Taliban and the Afghan government and its Western backers.

It was at the heart of President Obama's troop surge after he took office, where fresh American forces and resources were rushed in to try to break the Taliban's hold. British troops also fought bloody battles there, suffering some of their worst casualties.

For the Taliban, Helmand is a crucial prize because of its resources. The province produces the biggest opium poppy harvest in Afghanistan, and its deserts fall right on the lucrative trafficking route that the Taliban have increasingly exploited. One of Afghanistan's biggest marble mines is also in Helmand, with the Taliban profiting from the royalties.

The province shares a long and fluid border with Pakistan, where most of the Taliban's senior leadership lives. Some Afghan officials believe the insurgents have pushed harder for Helmand this year specifically to create a haven and operational headquarters in Afghanistan, allowing their leaders to come back into the country.

Much of the Helmand offensive has been waged by fighters loyal to Mullah Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo Bay inmate who is considered one of the architects of the Taliban resurgence and is a leading rival to the new Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.

Even as the Taliban's southern offensive has gained ground, so have their military pushes in eastern Afghanistan, and in the north as well, where they briefly occupied the provincial capital of Kunduz in September.

The broad pattern of fighting has desperately stretched the Afghan forces in a year when NATO air support was wound down with the end of the formal combat mission in 2014, Afghan officials say.

[Source: By Mujib Mashal and Taimoor Shah, The New York Times, Kabul, 22Dec15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 23Dec15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.