Home inContext Taliban Assault Tests Afghan Army in Helmand

Taliban Assault Tests Afghan Army in Helmand

Adam Goldstein

The Afghan Taliban seized parts of central Musa Qala, in Helmand Province early Thursday morning, gaining control over the area’s police station and other government buildings. The attack took place in the Taliban’s traditionally sympathetic Pashtun heartland as part of its annual spring offensive, the first that Afghan security forces will face without NATO military support.

During the battle, militants killed at least 11 members of the Afghan security forces. Fire also engulfed two shops and destroyed police vehicles, according to Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the province’s governor. Eventually, local police and the army retook the area with the help of helicopters mid-day Thursday.

Afghan security police stand guard at checkpoint in southern Afghanistan in February 2015. (Photo: AP)

As part of their offensive, Taliban gunman also overran several police checkpoints near Musa Qala last weekend, resulting in the deaths of at least 20 officers. The area has become important for South Afghanistan’s poppy trade and a large source of income for the Taliban, estimated to earn the group approximately $200 million annually.

In Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has taken a two-pronged approach to resolving the conflict between the American-supported government and the elusive Taliban. Ghani has pursued a military solution, launching offensive helicopter raids and night time operations in Helmand, while actively engaging in political negotiations with Taliban leaders. This strategy is not new to Afghanistan’s politicians, Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai, also used this approach. But presidential advisors hope Ghani’s policy of coordinating with Pakistan to help combat a common enemy, will help degrade the insurgency. Despite the historically shaky relationship between the two countries, uniting against a common enemy could prove strategically significant to Ghani’s struggle against the Taliban.

Although the Afghan security forces are more capable than just a few years ago, they have so far lacked the capacity to completely pacify Helmand. As NATO forces assumed an advisory role in 2015, the country’s security forces have also become responsible for fighting Taliban advances in the Oruzgan, Badakshan, and Kandahar provinces to the east as well as the south. New territorial gains made by militants put the efficacy of the Western trained security forces into doubt, and suggests a long fight ahead if no political compromise is reached.