Taliban fighters have captured the key district of Sangin in southern Afghanistan province after security forces pulled out, leaving the region to the insurgents, officials said on Thursday.
The fall of Sangin, once considered the deadliest battlefield for British and US troops in Afghanistan, came amid the insurgents’ year-long push to expand their footprint in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province.
Since the withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, and with only a smaller US-led advise and training mission left behind, Sangin was seen as a major test of whether Afghan security forces could hold off the advancing Taliban.
Helmand, which accounts for the bulk of Afghanistan’s billion dollar opium crop, is already largely in the hands of the Taliban but the capture of Sangin underlines their growing strength in the south.
Sangin’s police chief, Mohammad Rasoul, said the Taliban overran the centre of the district early on Thursday morning. He said the district headquarters had been poorly protected and only eight policemen and 30 Afghan soldiers were on duty at the time of the Taliban siege.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi issued a statement claiming the capture of Sangin. Taliban fighters captured the police headquarters and a military base overnight, as well as military equipment that was abandoned by retreating forces.
He said the area was bombarded by foreign forces following the withdrawal of Afghan troops.
Afghan troops prepare for counter-attack
Afghan security forces are now amassing nearby for a full-scale counter-attack in a bid to retake Sangin, Rasoul added, though he did not say when the assault would occur and how many troops would be involved.
“We are preparing our reinforcements to recapture the district,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Afghan military would seek the help of international coalition forces in the area.
In Kabul, a lawmaker from Sangin, Mohammad Hashim Alokzai, urged the military to move quickly to retake the district, saying its fall could have devastating consequences for Helmand, where the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah has in recent months come under constant and heavy attack by the Taliban.
In a separate development in northern Kunduz province, an officer turned his rifle on sleeping colleagues, killing nine policemen, officials said. Police spokesman Mafuz Akbari said the insider attack on Thursday occurred at a security post and the assailant escaped under cover of darkness.
Afghanistan has seen a spike in insider attacks. In such incidents, attackers usually end up stealing their weapons and fleeing to join insurgents.
Akbari said the assailant had gone over to the Taliban. He also said the attacker and the Taliban gathered the bodies of the dead policemen and set them on fire.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, but denied a policeman had been involved or that the Taliban had burned the bodies of the policemen.
Afghan forces have come under intensified pressure by insurgents in both Helmand and Kunduz.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Nicholson, said last month the country was in a “stalemate” and thousands more international troops would be needed to boost the existing NATO-led training and advisory mission.
According to US estimates, government forces now control less than 60% of Afghanistan, with almost half the country either contested or under the control of insurgents seeking to reimpose Islamic law.