KABUL (Reuters) - More foreign troops died fighting in Helmand than in any other province in Afghanistan but little more than a year after NATO left, the region risks being overrun by the Taliban because of confusion, corruption and mismanagement in Afghan forces.
Sangin is the latest Helmand district to slip into Taliban control, badly denting hopes that Afghan security forces would be able to fight on alone after international forces pulled out last year.
Sarwar Jan is the commander of a police battalion that has been heavily engaged in Sangin and Marjah, another district mostly in Taliban hands, and he is scathing about Afghan army units he says left his isolated, under-equipped men to fight alone.
“We call them up for reinforcement when there is an attack, but they won’t respond. So our forces are like: ‘If they don’t cooperate, why should we help them?’” he said.
It is a picture familiar from the disaster in the northern city of Kunduz where last September Taliban fighters drove off demoralized and disorganized security forces and seized the town before pulling out two weeks later.
Units in Helmand have been left to fight for months on end with inadequate supplies and reinforcements. Corruption has siphoned off supplies and some units are under-strength because of ghost troops - deserters who are not reported so that officials can pocket their pay.
“In one battalion, the official strength is 400 but the actual number is around 150,” said Ataullah Afghan, a member of provincial council in Helmand. “There is intelligence failure, lack of coordination, huge corruption in terms of selling fuel, ghost troops and much else,” he said.
Helmand, a longstanding Taliban stronghold and the source of most of the opium that helps fund the movement, has always been difficult to control.
But a web of competing interests and political interference has made it impossible to get a grip of the situation, says Shekiba Hashemi, a member of parliament from Kandahar who sits on the parliamentary security committee.
“The police chief for example has been appointed by one powerful figure, the governor by another figure and the army chief by someone else,” she said. “There is no proper coordination and management or hierarchy in the ranks. You don’t know who is in charge and when things go wrong, they start blaming each other.”
President Ashraf Ghani’s awkward National Unity Government, formed after last year’s inconclusive election, has left key positions unfilled or allowed local politicians to dictate security appointments.
“If their demands are not met in appointing a police or army officials in this or that province, they create problems for the respective ministers,” said a government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When NATO troops pulled out of Helmand in October last year, hopes were expressed that Afghan forces that moved into the two huge bases left behind by American and British soldiers would be able to take on the Taliban alone.
Instead, insurgent advances have shown how much remains to be done.
While NATO officials readily praise the courage and endurance of Afghan soldiers, a Pentagon report to Congress last week highlighted the overall shortcomings of the forces, which it said had serious problems with leadership.
In addition, army units were spread too thinly and were too inclined to wait at their checkpoints instead of taking the fight to the Taliban, leaving the initiative entirely up to the insurgents, it said.
Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai admits the fighting in Helmand has been “difficult” but says the problems that have emerged are the natural result of handing over security to local forces that still needed development.
“In 2014, in such a hurry, everyone was saying we have to take over responsibility. In only one year, we took over responsibility,” he told a news conference in Kabul this week.
Alarmed by the Taliban advances, Britain has sent extra personnel to NATO’s Resolute Support advisory mission in Helmand in a bid to help struggling local forces. Officials have not confirmed reports that special forces are present and they insist that the mission is there to advise and will not take part in combat operations. But at least two air strikes have been carried out this week.
Afghan commanders have repeatedly pleaded for more helicopters, and close air support and intelligence from surveillance aircraft - battlefield assets referred to in military jargon as “enablers”.’
“Coordination among forces here have improved but intel gathering still remains a challenge,” said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, a spokesman for the 215 Corps based in Helmand.
He said that NATO forces had operated with around 60 eye-in-the-sky surveillance balloons in Sangin, allowing them to track the movements of groups of insurgents. By contrast, Afghan forces now had just one balloon in the whole province, despite pleas for help. “Our request is still pending,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie