WEB DESK: Clashes intensified Monday as the Taliban pressed an offensive to capture a key district in Helmand, a day after an official warned that the entire southern province was on the brink of collapse.
Local residents reported crippling food shortages in Sangin district, heartland of the opium harvest and long seen as a hornet’s nest of insurgent activity, after the Taliban began storming government buildings on Sunday.
“The Taliban have captured the police headquarters, the governor’s office as well as the intelligence agency building in Sangin,” deputy Helmand governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar told AFP.
“Fighting is escalating in the district.”
Rasoolyar’s comments come a day after he posted a desperate plea on Facebook to President Ashraf Ghani, warning the entire province was at risk of falling to the Taliban.
The grim assessment bore striking similarities to the security situation that led to the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September — the biggest Taliban victory in 14 years of war.
The government in Kabul vowed to send reinforcements to Sangin, while strongly denying that the district was at risk of being captured.
But trapped residents told AFP that roads to Sangin had been heavily mined by insurgents and soldiers besieged in government buildings were begging for food rations.
All but two of Helmand’s 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by Taliban insurgents, officials said.
Insurgents also recently overran Babaji, a suburb of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, fuelling concern that the city could fall to the insurgents.
The fall of Helmand would deal another stinging blow to the country’s NATO-backed forces as they struggle to rein in the ascendant insurgency.
Highlighting the gravity of the situation, US special forces have been sent to Helmand in recent weeks to assist Afghan forces, a senior Western official told AFP without offering details.
This month marks a year since the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations assisting in training local forces.
President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedalling on previous plans to shrink the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.