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Incessant Taliban Attacks Imperil Major Afghan Dam

File photo of combat in Helmand.
File photo of combat in Helmand.

KAJAKI, Afghanistan -- Sleep deprivation seems to be the worst enemy of exhausted soldiers in a distant Afghan frontline.

Sharafuddin, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, commands a small detachment of the local Afghan police force in the volatile province of Helmand in southern Afghanistan.

He says his men are exhausted after defending one of Afghanistan's major dams in Helmand's northern Kajaki district from nonstop Taliban attacks for nearly two weeks.

"We have been constantly fighting for the past 12 days," he said. "My soldiers are not lions. How long will they hold out against this unending onslaught?"

Sharafuddin says the Taliban have raised a special force called "Red Division," which attacks them from all sides and is constantly supplied with new fighters.

He says that compared with his forces' assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers, the insurgents have better weapons.

"We don't have any tanks or air support," he said. "A few days ago, one of my soldiers died from his wounds because we had nothing to stop his bleeding or to evacuate him from Kajaki."

The Taliban assault on Kajaki appears to be part of an insurgent strategy to capture ground. The insurgents launched their biggest offensive this spring since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban assault has been concentrated on Kajaki and four neighboring districts: Nawzad, Sangin, Nahr-e Saraj, and Musa Qalah. For most of the past 14 years, the insurgents have controlled Helmand's northern most mountainous district, Baghran.

Afghan military observers say the insurgent push into Kajaki seems to be part of a larger strategy to sweep through large parts of neighboring Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. The fall of a major dam will be a huge symbolic victory, and its destruction could threaten stability, electricity supply, and livelihoods across southern Afghanistan.

The Kajaki dam in Helmand.
The Kajaki dam in Helmand.

‚ÄčKajaki's tribal leaders worry the insurgents might capture the dam within the next two weeks.

"If you stay here overnight, you will see the fighting is so intense that it is impossible to sleep because of all the noise," said Naek Mohammad, the leader of Kajaki's local tribal council. "All the Afghan forces here are exhausted, and they won't be able to resist advancing insurgents for more than 10 days."

Mohammad says the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) have joined hands to capture Kajaki. He adds that Kajaki is awash with rumors that IS has trained more than 40 suicide bombers to storm the dam. Claims about an insurgent alliance or their plans could not be independently verified.

Kajaki tribal leaders say the insurgents have already captured nearly two-thirds of the district since the beginning of their offensive in April.

Helmand's security officials, however, are adamant they will defend the Kajaki dam and even recapture lost territories.

Helmand police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhel says provincial officials this week decided to send reinforcements to Kajaki and launch an offensive to push the insurgents back.

"We want to be able to secure the dam and the entire district," he said. "I can assure you there is no reason to be worried over the imminent fall of Kajaki."

Brigadier General Dadan Lawang, Afghan army commander in Helmand, says the Taliban are exaggerating their military victories.

"They were saying that they will topple the Afghan government this year, but you can see no such thing is happening," he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Kajaki, Helmand.