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Can Afghan Forces Hold On To Former Taliban Territories?

The Afghan forces hold a Taliban flag after overrunning an insurgent hideout in Marjah on July 22.
The Afghan forces hold a Taliban flag after overrunning an insurgent hideout in Marjah on July 22.

MARJAH — In recent months, Afghan government forces have made notable gains in some frontline Afghan provinces by reclaiming lost territories from the Taliban insurgents.

But with dwindling international support and decreasing international interest in the Afghan war, it becomes increasingly a question of whether Kabul can hold on to these areas.

Marjah, an agricultural district in the southern province of Helmand, is a good indicator of the ongoing war for the Afghan countryside. Fighting in these regions is still a classic struggle over territory, population, and access between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.

Hundreds of Afghan troops supported by helicopters are now trying to break through to the center of Marjah – a cluster of mudwalled buildings – after initial advances against the Taliban. Like most of Helmand’s 14 districts, the Afghan forces lost Marjah to the resurgent Taliban in 2015 after most NATO troops left by the end of the previous year.

Waseem Talash, one of the soldiers participating in the offensive, is optimistic about soon recapturing the center of Marjah because the Afghan forces swiftly broke through the Taliban frontline defenses this week despite strong enemy defenses and a large number of landmines on the road.

“We launched this offensive with good coordination among our forces,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “So far, we have made good progress.”

If the Afghan forces reclaim Marjah, it will be the third Helmand district government forces would recapture from the Taliban during the past year.

Helmand’s governor, Mohammad Yasin, is optimistic that if his forces recapture the district they will be able to consolidate their gains and will be able to prevent it from being overrun by the Taliban.

“The current offensive is being conducted in phases,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We will be consolidating our gains by building bases and check posts, which will ultimately enable people to live in peace.”

Yasin claimed that most of the Taliban’s military might in Marjah was concentrated in the hands of foreign fighters who were also guiding the insurgent’s war effort.

But Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, rejected his claim.

In a text message to Radio Free Afghanistan he claimed that they do not need foreign support in conceiving and conducting military offensives. “This is just the government’s propaganda,” he said.

Observers in Helmand are waiting whether the government forces will be able to retain control over Marjah if it fails to mobilize reinforcements to guard and police the area, which is also vital for the drug trade.

Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest province where most of the world’s illicit opium is cultivated and then processed into heroin. Its long porous border with Pakistan and proximity to Iran has turned it into a vital hub for narcotics trafficking. The drug trade provides the Taliban with a key revenue stream.

In March 2010, some 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops reclaimed Marjah from the Taliban under the banner of operation “Moshtarak” or “together.” The large-scale offensive did provide Marjah some respite, but its gains were ultimately lost when NATO forces ended their counterinsurgency campaign in 2014.

The poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and under-resourced Afghan forces couldn’t hold the insurgents who overran Marjah and large parts of Helmand’s countryside. But Yasin says his forces are well equipped and capable of holding Marjah.

A local tribal leader who requested anonymity because of possible Taliban reprisals told Radio Free Afghanistan that they cannot put up with more uncertainty.

“Our only hope is that this offensive will not cause us more pain,” he said.

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