Friday 23 March 2018

Exhausted Afghans clinging on against the Taliban

An Afghan National Army soldier searches a passenger at a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district of Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photo: AP
An Afghan National Army soldier searches a passenger at a checkpoint on the way to the Sangin district of Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

Danielle Moylan Kabul and Ben Farmer in London

The taunts were carried by loudspeaker over the compound walls to the exhausted and starving troops huddled inside.

The besieged Afghan soldiers and police had little choice: they could surrender to the Taliban fighters who had swept into Sangin days earlier, or they would soon be killed.

Around them lay the bodies of comrades who had died in the fighting and could not be buried or removed.

Details of the grim conditions for government troops pinned down in central Sangin emerged last night as the security forces struggled to maintain their last foothold in the Helmand town, which came to symbolise Britain's bloody struggle in Afghanistan. Just 14 months after British combat troops left the province, Taliban insurgents were in control of all but a handful of government buildings in Sangin.

Reinforcements dispatched by Kabul were still trying to negotiate their way through deadly belts of homemade bombs to relieve the remaining pockets of troops, who were running low on food and ammunition.

The Taliban said that Britain was "stupid" for redeploying military advisers to Helmand.

Around 10 British advisers flew from Kabul earlier this week as part of a Nato effort to shore up the province.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, said: "The British troops cannot do anything. Same as before, they will face a bitter defeat and disgrace, as they faced in the past 14 years. Our message to them is that if they don't want their troops to be killed,… leave the country."

Intense fighting washed across the town for the fourth day since Taliban fighters pushed in at the weekend. In house-to-house clashes, the Taliban overwhelmed security forces and took control of more government buildings, only for Afghan forces to take them back hours later.

One Afghan soldier, Yaseen Zamarai, told the AP from inside the town that the Taliban were outside his building and had entered once earlier in the day.

"We need help. We can't hold them for much longer," he said. "It's not that we are afraid of death, but we didn't think that our brothers would leave us like this."

Both sides suffered heavy casualties, according to Abdul Majid Akhundzada, deputy head of Helmand provincial council. "Most of our wounded personnel died because we had no medical care," he said. "Even soldiers with minor injuries lost their lives."

Around 200 Afghan police and soldiers have been holed up for three days in Sangin's Afghan army compound and a handful of other buildings.


Many of the soldiers have not eaten for days and the local police chief has complained that his men have been abandoned by the provincial governor.

Attempts to airdrop food to the defenders were unsuccessful until an air strike, believed to have been carried out by Afghan air forces, temporarily dislodged Taliban positions and allowed supplies to get through, according to officials.

Local sources said the Taliban had resorted to shouting threats and taunts, encouraging the soldiers to surrender.

Nato spent years and billions of pounds building, equipping and training Afghanistan's new army and police force, but as international troops have left, they have struggled to contain the insurgency.

Masoom Stanekzai, acting defence minister, said his overstretched forces were in need of international military support, especially air support.

He said: "The Helmand battle is not easy because the province has a long border, is a core of opium production, and our enemies are well-equipped and deeply involved in the smuggling of drugs. These factors complicate the battle for Sangin." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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