Sangin, a key town in Helmand province, , has for years been the scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and Nato forces. Sangin is totemic for British and US troops, with both having suffered a high death toll there. Its loss would be a psychological blow as well as providing the Taliban with an important base.
Afghan forces have been battling for days to prevent the complete fall of the town, according to government officials in Kabul. Residents report that the insurgents are in control of at least 50% of the town.
With access by road difficult, the Afghan government has been forced again to resupply its troops from the air.
Residents have reported that they are also running out of food and water, with the streets deserted after warnings from the Taliban to stay at home.
Saifudin Sanginwal, a tribal elder in Sangin district, said: “There is no support for the Afghan national security forces from the central government. For three days, they haven’t had enough food or ammunition.” He added that some forces had defected to the Taliban because of a shortage of supplies.
There was a serious lack of cooperation between the police, army and Afghan special forces, Sanginwal said, although he added that the situation had begun to improve for Afghan forces after an airstrike at about 3pm local time on Tuesday.
Qari Yousaf, a Taliban spokesman, said the siege was continuing “and the government will soon announce [its] defeat”.
The loss of Sangin would be a setback for the Afghan government, which is trying to retain control of the country, and for the US, the UK and others in the coalition looking for a way to extricate themselves from the country after 14 years of conflict.
The Taliban takeover of Kunduz in the north in September for three days undermined the authority of Kabul.
Sangin is psychologically important too for the UK, given that preventing its fall to the Taliban.
The UK sent a modest contingent of British military advisers to Helmand at the weekend to support the overstretched forces. The 10 British troops, part of a 300-strong Nato force, are based at Camp Shorabak, about 50 miles from Sangin. The MoD said they would remain inside the camp to provide advice and infantry training and would not be involved in combat.
Although the number of British troops is tiny, it is hugely symbolic – a return to the province 14 months after they pulled down their flag.
US special forces have been supporting Afghan forces in Helmand for several months. Bilal Sarwary, a freelance journalist, tweeted that villagers in Greashk district in Helmand province said they had seen western special forces in the area on the ground on Monday morning.
A US military source was quoted on Monday saying US special forces were also supporting Afghan forces in Sangin and that a British SAS unit was working alongside them.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said it never comments on the deployment of special forces, but the BBC said it understood that the reports of SAS involvement in Helmand were incorrect.
The UK has 450 troops in Afghanistan, mainly engaged in officer training in Kabul.
As well as Afghanistan, the UK is contributing small numbers of troops – also in advisory and training roles – to Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria and possibly Libya, raising concerns about being overstretched.
Lord Dannatt, former chief of the general staff, told the BBC the government would have to think long and hard about any expansion of its role in Afghanistan. “We can’t do all of those things – the government has got to decide what its priority is,” he said.
A resident who fled Sangin, Haji Abdul Qader, told AFP that the Taliban had publicly executed at least three security officials after storming government buildings. “The Taliban dragged two intelligence officials and a local police commander from their homes and shot them dead,” he said.
“Only the governor’s compound and the police headquarters are under government control. The rest have been overrun by the Taliban.”
Qader said he fled to the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah after a mortar bomb landed on his house, wounding his infant son and daughter.
Another resident, Atiqullah Rehman, said he too wanted to flee the area but has been unable to. His family had not eaten for the past two days, he said.
“Since the Taliban took over the district, all the markets have been shut. Everyone is trying to leave but we cannot step out of our homes,” Rehman told al-Jazeera. “We might get shot. This is how bad it is here.”