Afghanistan: Taliban seizing more territory in Helmand

Why isn’t this in the headlines? From the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Feb. 12:

The Taleban have taken control of their second Helmand district in less than two weeks, say district officials.

The Taleban captured the police chief of Washir district and 30 of his officers when they were out on patrol Sunday, February 11, according to a high-ranking district official, who wanted his identity withheld. “They then went to the district centre, where they took control, disarming the rest of the police,” said the official.

A Taleban spokesman in Washir, speaking by satellite phone, confirmed the seizure, but added that Taleban presence in Washir was nothing new. “We have had control over Washir for some two months now,” said the spokesman, who also wished to remain anonymous.

Washir is a sparsely populated district in Helmand’s northwest corner. Bordering the provinces of Nimroz and Farah, it is home mainly to poppy growers and livestock herders.

The loss of Washir followed close on the collapse of Musa Qala, a district slightly to the south of Washir.

On February 1, the Taleban raised their white banner over the Musa Qala district centre, putting an end to a tenuous and controversial ceasefire agreement, brokered by village elders last October, between the Taleban and the mainly British NATO forces that control the province.

NATO and the Afghan government are reported to be considering their reaction to the Musa Qala takeover, but for now the insurgents remain in control.

Details were scarce on Monday, February 12. Spokesman for the interior ministry Zemerai Bashiry said he had no information on the status of Washir.

Residents were also bewildered by the turn of events.

“I do not know what is going on here,” said Noormahmad, a resident of Washir. “The village is empty, no one is going to the bazaar. We are afraid there will be fighting.”

Over the past several months, the battle for Afghanistan’s increasingly troubled southern region has moved to Helmand, a province noted mainly for its thriving narcotics industry. Helmand grows approximately 42 per cent of the country’s opium poppy, and supplies almost 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.

The Taleban have been highly visible in the area, and have mounted frequent attacks on the NATO troops who took over from the US-led coalition forces last summer.

Heavy fighting is reported in the northern district of Kajaki, location of the dam that supplies the bulk of Helmand’s hydroelectric power.

The capital, Lashkar Gah, is in danger of being overwhelmed by the flood of refugees from the areas controlled by the Taleban. Some 1,000 families have come down from Musa Qala, according to provincial officials, joining an additional 3,000 families already displaced by the fighting.

“I just came from my home,” said one Washir resident, who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals. “There were Taleban there, I saw them with their guns and their motorcycles. No one can control them. They have more power than the government.”

See our last posts on Afghanistan and the new opium war.

  1. And in Farah…
    From AP, Feb. 19:

    Police flee after Taliban briefly capture district in western Afghanistan

    KABUL — Police fled a town in western Afghanistan on Monday and suspected Taliban militants briefly moved in — the second time in a month that the government has lost control of a district in the area.

    The police fled to a forest near Bakwa in Farah province a day after a roadside bomb killed four officers involved in opium poppy eradication.

    A group of militants moved in and stayed for about 30 minutes, seizing three vehicles before leaving, said provincial Gov. Muhajuddin Baluch.

    Baryalaj Khan, spokesman for the Farah police chief, said they had lost contact with police in Bakwa since 11:30 a.m. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary said police planned to return to the town Tuesday.

    The retreat followed Sunday’s bombing of a car carrying the province’s police chief on his return from destroying poppy fields. The police chief was unharmed, but four other officers in the vehicle were killed and two wounded.

    Khan blamed Taliban militants for the attack, saying they were involved in the drug trade; he gave no evidence to support his claim. Bakwa lies about 40 miles from Afghanistan’s biggest opium-producing province of Helmand.

    Taliban militants overran Helmand’s town of Musa Qala on Feb. 1, defying a peace deal between the government and elders last fall that capped weeks of fighting. The pact was supposed to bar both Taliban fighters and NATO soldiers from coming within three miles of the town center.

    Thousands of residents have fled the area since the Taliban seized Musa Qala, fearing a NATO attack and renewed clashes with the militants. The government is negotiating with elders to get them to persuade the militants to leave.

    NATO-led troops have a small presence in Farah province, but alliance officials in Kabul referred all questions on Monday’s retreat to the Ministry of Interior. Officials there could not reached for comment.

    Separately, the U.S. military said a soldier was killed Monday in fighting near Naray, in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar. No other details were released.

    In Ghor province, meanwhile, a clash between poppy farmers and police conducting eradication left one civilian dead and two wounded, said deputy provincial governor Kramuddin Rezazada.

    Some 500 people had gathered to protest government attempts at poppy eradication following last year’s record crop.

    Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium poppy. In 2006, production in the country rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons — enough to make about 670 tons of heroin.

    The government rejected U.S. offers of ground-spraying and pledged it would step up poppy eradication using tractors and manpower.

    In southern Afghanistan, suspected insurgents fired a rocket at a Canadian military’s armored vehicle in the city of Kandahar on Sunday, but no troops were injured in the attack, said Capt. Alex Watsen, a spokesman for the force.

    Canadians fired back, killing one suspected militant, Watsen said. One policeman also was killed in the ensuing gunfight, he said.

    Note that this has all escalated since the US took command of NATO forces in Afghanistan. From Pakistan’s Dawn, Feb. 4:

    US takes Nato command in Afghanistan today

    WASHINGTON — The United States takes command of more than 33,000 Nato troops in Afghanistan on Sunday amid talks of a new Taliban offensive this summer, the Pentagon said.

    US general Dan McNeill will take over command of Nato troops at a ceremony in Kabul. The United States also commands more than 10,000 other soldiers under a separate operation.British general David Richards, who hands over command to the United States, spoke of the Taliban offensive in a farewell statement, although he also said that the Taliban were militarily trounced last year.

    Last year was the deadliest since US-led troops toppled the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    More than 4,000 people were killed, mostly rebels. About 170 foreign soldiers, many of them Americans, were also killed.

    The United States last week doubled its ground combat forces, adding 2,500 soldiers for the next few months.

    The extra troops will mostly go to creating a rapid reaction force for combating the Taliban.

    Britain and Poland also have promised to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

    Last week, the Bush administration asked Congress for an extra $10.6 billion for Afghanistan.

    As much as $8.6 billion of this money will be spent on training a 70,000-strong Afghan national army and the national police force.

    A recent US intelligence report blamed drug money and the presence of safe havens and training camps inside Pakistan for the Taliban’s come back who were written off as a force in 2002.

    Recently, several US officials, including National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, urged Islamabad to do more to stop rebels and drug gangs crossing over to Afghanistan.

    They acknowledged that Pakistan no longer backs the Taliban, but was unable to control their movement.

    �The international community is putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan, but let’s just remember that Pakistan has also done a huge amount for the international community on the back of 9/11,” said Gen Richards.

    “But this is not a ‘them and us’. This is a common problem, with common solutions.”

    Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced in Washington on Saturday that the US 82nd Airborne Division has accepted responsibility for Combined Joint Task Force 76 from the 10th Mountain Division.

    The task force supports Nato operations in eastern Afghanistan. The 10th Mountain Division has been in Afghanistan for about a year.

    Thousands of 82nd Airborne paratroopers will be deployed throughout Afghanistan for more than year, continuing the combat, combat service and combat service support operations of their predecessors, the Pentagon said.