According to TOLO News, and as expounded on in a post in the Long War Journal, the bases were manned by roughly 400 troops and destroyed prior to their departure. Last summer, the Taliban gained a significant amount of territory in both Musa Qala and Now Zad, and the Afghan army’s withdrawal appears to signify the complete capitulation of the two districts to the militants. Both Musa Qala and Now Zad were the scenes of heavy fighting by U.S. Marines and British troops in the early years of the war.
TOLO quoted the commander of the unit responsible for the region — Maj. Gen. Mohammad Moeen Faqir of the 215th Corps — as saying that vacating the bases was a necessary move to improve security elsewhere in Helmand.
There has been constant fighting in Helmand province since U.S. and coalition forces officially ended their combat mission there in 2014. In January, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier was killed during a clearing operation alongside Afghan commandos in the town of Marjah, roughly 125 miles south of Now Zad and Musa Qala.
A statement from the U.S.-led coalition confirmed the decision and Faqir’s rationale, adding that the 215th is also reducing the number of checkpoints in the area, “which will result in more mobile forces.”
The Afghan military has always invested a large portion of its combat power into checkpoints and fixed positions, a strategy that has severely limited its ability to mount offensive operations.
The 215th Corps’ relocation and redistribution of forces comes at a time where Afghan security forces are struggling to meet recruitment goals. The almost 15-year-old war has whittled their ranks through frequent casualties and desertions. The outgoing commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Cambell, recently told lawmakers that the previous commander of the 215th Corps was sacked following the Taliban’s recent gains.
Earlier this month, Campbell authorized a surge of approximately 100 U.S. advisers into Helmand province, likely to help the beleaguered Afghan forces prepare for the spring. Warmer months have always seen an uptick in Taliban activity, but as U.S. forces have withdrawn from the region, the Taliban has fought consistently despite the colder months.
Tim Craig in Kabul contributed to this report.