LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan’s largest province has been overrun by the Taliban since the beginning of the year, but the man who oversees security in Helmand is adamant it will be won back soon.
Abdul Jabar Qahraman, the operational commander of Afghan forces in southern Helmand Province, says his forces have begun to reverse the Taliban’s gains after being beaten back and forced to shelter in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Qahraman oversees some 30,000 Afghan troops from the besieged capital. He says the tide is now turning against the Taliban and has vowed to move the fighting away from Lashkar Gah within the next six months.
“Our enemy’s capabilities have been significantly downgraded, so the government forces can easily reclaim lost territories,” he said. “But we are very careful to spare civilians any harm.”
In early 2016, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed former communist general Qahraman to stem the tide of the Taliban’s advances in Helmand.
But during the past 10 months, the Taliban have overrun most of Helmand’s 15 districts and virtually besieged its capital for several months now.
The province borders Pakistan and is located in close proximity to Iran. Its status as the global epicenter of opium production and drug smuggling has helped line insurgent coffers. The region is a key recruiting ground for the Taliban, and its fall to the insurgents would be a tipping point.
Since the departure of most foreign troops by the end of 2014, the Taliban have made significant inroads in several rural provinces.
In its recent quarterly report, a U.S. government monitoring agency noted that Kabul has lost control of 2.2 percent of Afghan territory this year.
“Of Afghanistan's 407 districts, 258 districts were under government control or influence, [and] 33 districts were under insurgent control,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in its report, adding that an additional 116 districts were contested.
Qahraman says that despite the risks posed by the insurgents currently fighting in the second and third districts of Lashkar Gah, he is optimistic.
He says the Afghan Army’s ground operations and U.S. air strikes have significantly dented the Taliban war machine.
“I admit all is not well, but I am sensing a change in a positive direction,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.