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Afghan Troops Retreat Under Pressure From Taliban

The last of the Afghan forces have pulled out of the strategic district of Musa Qala in southern Helmand Province, officials said on Saturday, months after the Taliban overran most of the district and kept them holed up in desert outposts.

The retreat, which had many politicians here mystified, was the latest blow to a province that had been teetering for months. Now, the resurgent Taliban insurgents either control or are contesting 10 of its 14 districts, extending the fighting to Babaji, a suburb so close to the provincial capital that residents of the city could hear the clashes at night.

Col. Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, a spokesman for the Afghan Army's 215th Maiwand Corps in Helmand, said the military leadership had decided that it was more effective to pull out the remaining troops and reinforce bases elsewhere in the province.

"We don't have troops in Musa Qala anymore," Colonel Zazai said.

Other officials said the decision was made to avoid further casualties to a reeling force because the army units were under severe pressure from the Taliban, making reinforcement and resupply difficult.

But Abdul Majid Akhundzada, the deputy chief of the Helmand provincial council, said that the posts had not been under immediate threat and that he had no reports of the Taliban attacking them in recent days.

The withdrawal was not without incident, as some of the retreating troops were ambushed on Saturday morning by insurgents in the Paposhta area of the Now Zad district.

Many in Helmand fear that the government, struggling against the Taliban offensive, is now concentrating its forces around crucial territories, such as the provincial capital, the main highway and the hydroelectric dam in the Kajaki district, while allowing the Taliban to hold other areas.

"It seems that the central government is planning to leave the northern districts to the Taliban," said Bashir Ahmad Shakir, chairman of the security committee of the provincial council. "Once you pull out your troops from volatile locations, how would you be able to place them again?"

He added, "We are losing Helmand."

Helmand is the world's most important opium-growing region. Its southern edge flanks the porous border with Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is based, and the province was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting between the Taliban and foreign troops before the NATO combat mission ended in 2014.

Alarm about the deteriorating situation in the province led the American military command to announce on Feb. 9 that it was sending a crack United States Army battalion to Helmand to protect the current Special Operations troops in Helmand and to stiffen the resolve of the Afghan forces there.

Some of the fiercest fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban took place in Musa Qala before it was brought under government control in 2007, with a Taliban commander switching sides to become district governor. Its location at the center of three other districts fiercely contested by the Taliban could help the insurgents carve a corridor from Baghran, a border territory controlled by them for years, to Laskar Gah.

After months of fierce fighting, the Taliban have effectively overrun the district of Sangin, with Afghan forces barely holding on to its center with heavy casualties. They have also made inroads in the Kajaki and Now Zad districts.

"The pullout from Musa Qala will definitely affect the situation in neighboring Kajaki and Greshk, which are already under serious threat," said Mr. Akhundzada, the provincial official.

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, The New York Times, Lashkar Gah, 20Feb16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 23Feb16 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.