The Taliban has captured a key district in Helmand province once considered the deadliest battlefield for British and US troops in .
The fall of Sangin on Thursday came amid the insurgents’ year-long push to expand their footprint in the heartland.
Since the withdrawal of Nato combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 – and with only a smaller, US-led advise and training mission left behind – Sangin has been seen as a key test of whether Afghan security forces can hold off advancing Taliban fighters.
Afghanistan's fight for Sangin: a key psychological battle for both sides
The district’s police chief, Mohammad Rasoul, said the Taliban overran Sangin early on Thursday morning.He said the district headquarters had been poorly protected and only eight police officers and 30 Afghan soldiers had been on duty.
Afghan security forces were amassing nearby for a full-scale counterattack in an attempt to retake Sangin, Rasoul added, though he did not say when the assault would occur and how many forces would be involved. “We are preparing our reinforcements to recapture the district.”
Of Britain’s more than 400 military deaths in Afghanistan, 104 soldiers were killed in Sangin.
It was not immediately clear if the Afghan military would seek the help of international coalition forces in the area. Nato’s spokesman, William Salvin, said Afghan troops remained in Sangin but had relocated outside the district centre because of the extensive damage to it by the Taliban.
In Kabul, a lawmaker from Sangin, Mohammad Hashim Alokzai, urged the military to move quickly to retake the district. He said its fall could have devastating consequences for Helmand, where the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah had in the past months also faced constant and heavy attack by the Taliban.
Sangin is also one of the biggest opium markets in Afghanistan. More than 4,800 metric tonnes of the drug was produced countrywide in 2016 – more than all other opium-producing countries combined, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Efforts at poppy eradication in Afghanistan have been severely restricted because of the insecurity in the southern and eastern regions of the country, where the bulk of the crop is grown.