Afghan soldiers have left have bases in the strategic district of Musa Qala in Helmand Province following months of heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents, officials have said.
Traditionally the heartland of the Taliban and one of the world’s biggest opium producers, Helmand has been under threat for months, eliciting a response by the United States, which recently sent hundreds of additional troops to shore up its defenses.
Afghan Army Commander Mohammad Moeen Faqir said troops were told to pull back from Roshan Tower, their main base in Musa Qala, as well as other checkpoints to reinforce Gereshk, straddling the main Highway One, which links Kabul with the south and west.
"Their presence in the area did not mean anything," he said. "We will use them in battle with enemies in other parts of Helmand Province."
The district and other parts of Helmand have has seen months of fierce fighting, and the Taliban overran Musa Qala in August last year before being driven back by Afghan forces and U.S. airstrikes.
British and American troops fought hard to control the district between 2006 and 2008, but losing it could mean further losses elsewhere, such as Sangin, where government forces have been holding out.
"Now that the government has withdrawn its forces from this district, we will see Kajaki, Gereshk, and Sangin collapse very soon," said deputy provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhundzada.
The Taliban announced in a statement they had captured armored personnel carriers, bulldozers, and other equipment abandoned at Roshan Tower and nine other checkpoints.
The pullout sparked speculation among local officials that the government had made some sort of deal with the Taliban, but the presidential envoy for security affairs in Helmand, Abdul Jabar Qahraman, denied there was any such agreement.
"There wasn't any deal," he said. "We learnt that there was no need to continue the fight in that area.
The Defense Ministry in Kabul was not immediately available for comment.
The outgoing commander of international forces, Gen. John Campbell, recently sent hundreds of American troops to Helmand, where they assist and train Afghan forces but do not fight.
A spokesman for NATO's Resolute Support mission in Kabul said its aim remained to train, advise, and assist, and he referred questions on Afghan troop movements to the Defense Ministry.
U.S. officials have estimated the Taliban dominate or threaten almost a third of the country and has full control over at least four districts. Although they briefly took the northern city of Kunduz last year, the Taliban control no provincial capitals.
Although Helmand has been one of the most threatened provinces, the Taliban have been pushing forward countrywide, putting immense pressure on already strained government troops who have been fighting on their own since international forces ended most combat operations in 2014.
With reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai for Reuters