Afghan security forces losing battle for Helmand province
Afghan security forces losing battle for Helmand provinceThe Afghan Taliban launched a major offensive on Khanashin district on 29 July, killing hundreds of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and consolidating recent territorial gains in the south of Helmand province. The offensive is symptomatic of the wider security situation in Helmand, where local officials estimate the Taliban control almost 60 percent of territory. The Taliban now controls at least five out of Helmand’s 14 districts, including Khanashin, Marjah, Sangin, Garmser and Dishu, and recent militant operations suggest Nad-e-Ali, which neighbours the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, could yet fall into the hands of militants. In addition to injuries, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are suffering mass desertions and defections. Endemic corruption within Afghanistan’s security institutions and a lack of coordination between the provincial security branches are major contributing factors to the Taliban’s recent successes in Helmand.
A recent audit of ANSF revealed the existence of thousands of “ghost” soldiers and police officers among the genuine ranks. A common practice within the province is for mid-ranking officials to invent hundreds of security units and pocket the salaries. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports that Kabul has no idea exactly how many soldiers comprise the ANSF and identified at least 400 hundreds “ghost” units. Local authorities have attributed the major absence of law enforcement officers across the province to this type of mid-level corruption. In addition to intra-institutional corruption, both the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) have failed to coordinate efforts in response to provincial-wide Taliban offensives. In Khanashin district, the local police force is fighting singlehandedly and senior commanders have expressed outrage at the total absence of ANA soldiers. Hundreds of ANA soldiers are currently under siege by Taliban forces in Nad-e-Ali, rendering them useless in further attempts to drive militants from at-risk areas.
Further territorial gains by the Taliban in Helmand province will only serve to strengthen their nationwide position. Helmand province, especially Khanashin district, acts as a hub for poppy production and processing and the province as a whole acts as a major trafficking route. Control over Helmand’s poppy fields would give the Taliban access to the country’s largest poppy cultivation market, bolstering the financial position of the insurgency. It would also facilitate a surge in Taliban recruitment by providing the funds to hire fighters. A 19 percent drop in cultivation during 2015 has been linked to crop failure rather than a drop in militancy. Government failures to properly enforce crop eradication programs in 2015 mean production levels this year are likely to rise, just as the Taliban retakes poppy-harbouring districts.