The Taliban have launched more attacks in Helmand than in any other province of this year, defending their territory in remote districts and ferociously pushing the war into government enclaves.
Control of Helmand was won over the past decade by thousands of British and American troops, and with their departure in 2014 the government’s hold began to slip. Insurgents were quick to take advantage.
They spent the year making a slow pincer movement, closing in from north and south towards the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Over the past seven months, forces overran some of the most hard-won rural bases in southern Afghanistan, losses that went almost unnoticed in the media.
The battles have occasionally stirred up a flurry of media interest when the names resonate with bereaved families and veterans, places like Musa Qala and Sangin. But the overall shift has been little noticed or discussed. Kabul can only claim full control of three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital. One district – Nad Ali – is split between government and insurgent control, and the remaining 10 are either completely lost to the Taliban, or heavily contested, even if they still boast a nominal government presence.
The losses are due as much to poor leadership of the Afghan army and police as to Taliban strengths. Corruption, desertion, “ghost soldiers” whose salaries are claimed by fraudulent commanders, and other problems have hampered efforts to stem the Taliban advance. But there is no question that the insurgent movement has poured resources into Helmand.
Their focus can be explained partly in economic terms. Afghanistan produces most of the world’s opium, and Helmand is the biggest single centre for production in the country, so whoever calls the shots in the province can get a sizeable share of drug business.
The drug business was always an important source of funding for the insurgents, but it has become more so as opportunities for extortion and skimming from foreign forces started drying up, and wealthy Gulf donors began redirecting their cash to militant groups fighting closer to home.
But the lure of Helmand goes beyond its opium economy. The Taliban have put it at the centre of a long-term strategy to expand their reach in the south. They see it as a stepping stone to other areas and hope to make Helmand the first province they “liberate”, Taliban sources say. They even dream of turning it into a safe haven for leaders based in Pakistan. That would make their insistence that the whole leadership is on Afghan soil a reality.
To move top commanders, the Taliban would need to feel confident about holding core territory while driving Afghan security forces from the province and protecting their leaders from any raids. That would have been almost impossible when 60 Nato spy blimps were scattered across the province, watching fighters from the sky. .
It would still be difficult, but Helmand boasts good exit routes across the border to Pakistan or through neighbouringNimruz province to Iran, and strong supply lines to other parts of Afghanistan. All the provinces surrounding Helmand have a strong Taliban footprint, with most of the adjacent districts already under insurgent control. That makes it easy for them to move in reinforcements, and difficult for government forces to besiege all of Helmand.
The Taliban can also count on the sympathy of the Ishaqzai tribe, who constitute a sizeable part of the province’s population.
The current Taliban leader, Akhtar Mansour, and many in his close circle, are Ishaqzais and the tribe was alienated by the US forces and their Afghan allies in the early years after the fall of the Taliban regime.
The Taliban’s hopes of securing full control of Helmand may beoverly optimistic for now, because the loss of Lashkar Gah would be such a devastatingblow to morale and confidencethat US and UK forces are likely to provide considerablesupport for some time to come.
The Taliban are also struggling with internal splits about leadership and whether to undertake peace talks, which could undermine their focus on the fighting in Helmand.
But if the government forces cannot rein in their own problems with corruption and attrition, it will still be hard to stop – much less reverse – the Taliban momentum in Helmand, and possibly beyond. And if the insurgents can consolidate even the advances they have made so far, it will be enough to make the province an important base for them and a heavydrain on government troops and resources for Kabul for manyyears to come.