'Russia may be arming Taliban,' says Nato general
The top US general in Europe warned yesterday that Russia may now be arming the Taliban, as the militant group seized the Afghan town where more than 100 British soldiers died trying to defend it.
The strategic district of Sangin in Helmand province was the deadliest battlefield for UK forces in Afghanistan and 104 British troops died in the effort to keep it out of the Taliban's hands.
But the town fell early yesterday morning as Taliban forces continued a years-long offensive to extend their reach in southern Afghanistan.
The Afghan government said it intended to mount a counter-attack to recapture the town but it was not clear if it had the forces to immediately take it back.
The setback came as the top US general in Europe warned that Russia may now be arming the militants. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said Moscow appeared to be an increasingly influential player in Afghanistan.
"I've seen the influence of Russia of late - increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban," he told a Senate hearing in Washington.
Gen Scaparrotti's comments come after a senior Pakistani military source said that Russia could be tempted to stage a Syria-style intervention in Afghanistan if Taliban and Isil strength continues to grow.
Russia has denied supporting the Taliban, saying its contacts with the group are aimed at bringing it to the negotiating table.
The fall of Sangin is the latest sign of how Afghanistan's security forces have struggled to hold their own against the Taliban since the withdrawal of most Western forces in 2014.
Afghan troops have suffered massive casualties fighting against the Taliban and are dogged by equipment shortages and salaries that are sometimes not paid because of corruption.
An Afghan policeman reportedly killed nine of his comrades as they slept and then fled to join the Taliban early yesterday morning. The killings, which took place in the northern province of Kunduz, is part of a spike of "insider attacks" in which Afghan forces have turned their weapons on their own side.
Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said he was not surprised to hear of Sangin's fall given the depleted state of the Afghan security forces. "The reality is that when we withdrew we left the Afghan security forces in a state where they were not able to do the job and defend the territory allegedly held by the Afghan government," he said.
"We and the Americans should have remained in Afghanistan in much greater numbers to see them through the very dangerous transition period for longer."
Col Kemp said that Sangin's fall might make some British veterans of Afghanistan question if their fight had been worth it but that the town itself was not particularly symbolic for UK forces.