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Afghan Officials Dissect Taliban Success In Southern Province

Members of the Afghan security forces take position during an operation against Taliban fighters in Helmand province in May.
Members of the Afghan security forces take position during an operation against Taliban fighters in Helmand province in May.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Now that the Taliban has overrun much of Afghanistan’s largest province, the governor of Helmand isn’t mincing his words.

Hayatullah Hayat says endemic corruption, negligence, and dereliction of duties among some of the Afghan Army and police forces have helped the Taliban move from remote districts in the province’s south and north to now virtually besieging the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

“Last year, I told you we would take back control of Helmand’s northern districts by winter,” he told journalists in Lashkar Gah on September 24. “Instead, failures by our security forces have dashed our dreams and paved the way for the enemy to move closer to Lashkar Gah.”

Hayat says the government will prosecute commanders who abandoned their positions to Taliban fighters.

“[During the past year,] our forces abandoned some 150 posts to the enemy [without fighting]. Out of these, 38 are military posts while the remaining 112 were manned by the police.”

Since March 2015, the Taliban have overrun most of Helmand’s nearly 60,000 square kilometers, which borders Pakistan to the east and is close to Iran. They now control or contest 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts, and the insurgents are even present in parts of Lashkar Gah and the Gereshk district to its north, where the government claims full control.

In recent months, the Taliban have also repeatedly cut off the major highway linking Lashkar Gah to southern Afghanistan’s biggest city, Kandahar, some 130 kilometers to the east.

Hayat says the scale of dereliction of duties among some troops is baffling.

“Not only they did they fail to fight the enemy, they also coerced civilians into taking over their vehicles to bring their excess luggage to Lashkar Gah,” he said of the forces who abandoned posts on Helmand’s frontlines. “They had time to take down their satellite antennas and solar panels, and even take off their slippers [and yet they failed to put up a fight].”

The governor says he is shocked to notice that while 99 percent of the police force comprises Helmand residents, very few of the 10,000 army soldiers are locals.

Hayat says this has badly affected the coordination and morale amid the Afghan troops.

“Instead of fighting as a united force, they are divided into cliques,” he said. “Sometimes they do not follow orders or even obey people outside the chain of command.”

Helmand’s police chief, however, see endemic interference from civilian officials and strongmen as a major hindrance.

“As long as the influence of mafia, drug traffickers, and strongmen doesn’t diminish we will not see an improvement,” Agha Noor Kintoz said.

He was referring to the region’s powerful criminal cartels that exploit Helmand’s status as the world’s largest producer of illicit opium, which is processed into heroine and smuggled to the Middle East and Europe through Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia.

“In addition, we need to get rid of tribalism and ethnic competition, which are also leading Helmand into an abyss,” Kintoz said.

Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed former communist general Abdul Jabar Qahraman to lead the Afghan forces in Helmand.

But he resigned this summer, saying he was disappointed in the troops he was leading.

Qahraman says that factional political interference in military, its anemic leadership, and an emboldened enemy -- who seemed to have worked out a good campaign plan -- have all contributed to the Taliban’s advances.

“Helmand is hanging off a steep cliff. It can still be saved if officials can come up with a good strategy and honor their commitments,” he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.