The Taliban have taken control of at least four districts in Helmand, a major focus of U.S and U.K combat operations until late last year, and now threaten areas bordering the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, local officials said.
At least 2,000 Afghan forces have been killed or wounded in Helmand in the past year, according to a Western official who recently reported on the deteriorating security situation in the southern Afghan province, Wall Street Journal reported.
Preventing the provincial capital from falling into the hands of the Taliban is a priority for U.S Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) military coalition in Afghanistan, coalition officials said.
In September, Taliban fighters in a matter of hours seized another provincial capital, Kunduz, and held it for several days, delivering a huge shock to coalition officials. U.S Special Forces were deployed to help Afghan forces drive out the rebels.
In a bid to avert a similar Taliban takeover in Helmand, at least three Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha units – so-called A-Teams – have been moved to the province to join a unit deployed there this year, a U.S security source based in the province said.
At least one British special-operations team is also in Helmand, marking the first return of U.K troops to the province since last year, this person added.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a U.S Special Operations spokesman confirmed in an email that “additional U.S special forces have been sent to augment our Train, Advise, and Assist mission in Helmand.” The spokesman declined to comment on the number of teams.
The role of the A-Teams in Helmand is to advise Afghan troops as part of the NATO support mission, but they often accompany Afghan forces during military operations and fight when they are threatened. They are also authorized to call in airstrikes.
Afghan security forces assumed responsibility for combat operations from the NATO-led coalition this year. Yet while the U.S has strict rules setting forth when its forces can provide direct combat assistance to Afghan forces, the brief seizure of Kunduz has led to a more aggressive approach by the U.S
“The rules were loosened because of the way things were going,” another Western official said.
An A-Team is usually made up of 12 men trained in a particular military specialty and deployed for the riskiest military operations. In Afghanistan, these operations consist of nighttime raids aimed at capturing or killing Taliban militants. Such missions have increased in Helmand in the weeks since the latest team arrived, Afghan officials said.
For the Taliban, Helmand is important commercially-opium production in the province is an important source of revenue. The group’s fighters have focused on the roads to several districts, planting mines and ambushing government reinforcements, reported the Wall Street Journal.
Police said their checkpoints are frequently targeted and that it was only a matter of time before their last remaining strongholds collapse.
Afghan officials acknowledged the challenges facing government forces in Helmand but denied that the Taliban had made significant gains in the province. Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, said government forces were present in all but two of the province’s 13 districts.
Zwak declined to comment on nighttime raids, saying U.S and Afghan officials were discussing the possibility of additional support.
Helmand has seen some of the bloodiest fighting following the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that forced the Taliban from power.
It hosted adjacent U.S and British bases known as Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, which were formally handed over last October. The bases were the logistical hub and headquarters for allied military operations in the province and once housed some 40,000 U.S and coalition troops.
The majority of the 378 U.S Marines killed in Afghanistan during the war died in Helmand. The British lost some 450 personnel, most of them in the province, too.