Sangin itself has limited strategic significance, but the currently underway on the Helmand town is a sign of insurgent confidence and strength that should sound alarm bells for the government in Kabul and its western backers.
The attack this weekend came after months of steady military advance through the province that have put more than half of it . That shift has gone almost unnoticed beyond Afghanistan, in part because places like Khaneshin are not household names, even in Kabul.
Sangin is different because it was the , with nearly a quarter of all British troops killed in Afghanistan dying there. If insurgents can wrest control of the district from the government, it would serve as both military consolidation and propaganda coup, and even if they fail, forcing Afghan troops into a desperate siege in a handful of buildings will have dented morale amongst government forces.
“I think they have been preparing for Sangin since the summer,” said Borhan Osman, a researcher with the who has written extensively about the Taliban. “It does look like taking control of as much of the province as possible is a military priority.”
The district centre, a dusty cluster of homes around a bazaar and handful of government buildings, was a key stop on the road to the north and the Kajaki electricity dam. Most of that area fell months ago, along with the rural areas of Sangin district itself.
Further south, Taliban advances brought their fighters to the suburbs of the . The situation across the province was so bad that the deputy governor for help from President Ashraf Ghani.
Foreign and Afghan commanders admitted long before most US and Nato troops left that in the wake of their departure villages and towns at the periphery of Afghan life would fall, but argued they were not strategically vital.
However each base that falls can be used as a launching pad for the attack on the main target. Long before the northern city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban, locals there had been right up to the city edge.
In Helmand, the Taliban have an even richer target. The provinceproduces approximately , with funds from poppy cultivation a longstanding supply of Taliban funds. It could also potentially serve as a base for attacks on neighbouring Kandahar, the political and cultural heart of southern Afghanistan, and the birthplace of the Taliban movement.
If they can dig in deep enough, some commanders are even hoping they might be able to shift leaders from Pakistan, setting up a base on Afghan soil for the first time in over a decade.
“They are set on taking most of Helmand, as the first stronghold for coming back, for establishing their solid presence,” Osman said. “Some sources within the Taliban say they would very much like to make Helmand a base for their leadership, including military commanders. So, Helmand can serve as a launching pad for a broader campaign for the .”
The advance of the Taliban in places like northern Kunduz province, where they briefly seized a provincial capital, and the rise of an Afghan branch of Islamic State have convinced the US to put their on hold. But even western air strikes and special forces troops are unlikely to be able to entirely push back Taliban gains in areas that were only prised from their grasp early this decade by tens of thousands of US and Nato forces.
And there is little appetite in western capitals for pushing up troop numbers in again, or expanding the role of soldiers now focused mostly on training Afghans to fight rather than going into battle themselves.
“The west is unlikely to invest too much into holding it,” said Raffaello Pantucci, the director of international security studies . “Ultimately, the location does not have much strategic significance.
“The political appetite to become heavily involved in Afghanistan once again is limited, and absent a direct threat from the country to the UK, anything more than a special forces footprint in support of Afghan forces is unlikely.”