Afghan forces say they have retaken Musa Qala, a desolate district in Helmand province where more than 20 British soldiers died duringBritain’s involvement in the war. The district fell to the on Wednesday.
About 220 Taliban fighters were killed in the operation on Saturday night, the defence ministry said. National security forces, backed by US airstrikes, captured large weapons caches and expelled the insurgents from the district governor’s office and police headquarters, said Haji Muallem, a tribal elder from Musa Qala.
Helmand’s governor, Mirza Khan Rahimi, said 33 security forces personnel had been killed or injured during the past four days. Among them was Musa Qala’s police chief, who remains in hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
The assault on Musa Qala is the latest evidence of the struggle to contain the Taliban, who look emboldened by last year’s drawdown of foreign combat troops. However, the swift recapture is also a sign that although the insurgents are generally unable to hold district centres for sustained periods of time. Part of the reason is that they rarely try.
“The Taliban’s aim is not to keep the districts. They are just attacking for propaganda purposes,” said a defence ministry spokesman, Dawlat Waziri, at a press conference.
Razia Baloch, a provincial council member from Helmand, said the insurgents never intended to establish a permanent hold over Musa Qala. “In the past we have seen the Taliban take districts but they don’t try to hold them.” By showing that they could threaten Musa Qala, she said, “they accomplished their mission.”
The Afghan government claims that the Taliban control just four of the country’s almost 400 districts. In late July, insurgents captured Nawzad, also in Helmand, and held it for two days.
However, anti-government fighters have made significant advances outside district centres, gaining territory in the northern Badakhshan and Faryab provinces, and forcing the government to send thousands of troops to bolster the defence of Kunduz.
Since January, the 13,000 troops that make up Nato’s Resolute Support Mission in have been limited to advising, training and assisting Afghan security forces. International soldiers are largely confined to bases in the country’s larger cities. However, several thousand US combat troops and special forces remain, independent of the Nato mission, some of whom were involved in reclaiming Musa Qala.
US forces conducted 18 airstrikes in the Musa Qala area over the past seven days, said Colonel Brian Tribus, spokesman for the international forces in Afghanistan. The US conducted 380 strikes in Afghanistan between January and July, .
In addition, Nato soldiers based at Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion advised Afghan forces involved in defending Musa Qala.
Musa Qala is symbolically important to British troops who spent effort and lives defending the district until their exit from Helmand in October last year. Although the district’s military strategic value is limited, it is coveted as part of a drug-trafficking route going north toward central Asia.
“Musa Qala has often become highly insecure when the government has created problems for the Taliban’s drug trade,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a security analyst in Kabul.
With international forces dwindling, Afghans are suffering worrying casualty rates. In the past week, 50 security forces were killed in separate attacks around Afghanistan. More than 5,000 soldiers and policemen have died so far in 2015.
In Helmand on Wednesday, two US soldiers were shot and killed by men dressed in Afghan army uniforms, bringing to 11 the number of American soldiers or contractors killed this year.