KABUL — Fighting raged Tuesday in the southern province of Helmand as Afghan troops, stretched thin by attacks in other regions and beset by internal problems, tried to beat back a Taliban offensive that threatened to swamp one of the country’s most strategically important areas.
Afghan security officials acknowledged that they were struggling to regain control of Sangin, a major opium-poppy-growing district of Helmand that has seesawed between Taliban and government control for years and that was the focus of intensive combat deployments by British forces and then U.S. Marines between 2006 and 2010. But the officials insisted that they would prevail soon, with the help of Afghan special forces and British troops sent in as advisers.
“Helmand will absolutely not fall to the Taliban,” Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a senior spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said in an interview. “We do confirm there have been casualties and there may be some tactical problems, but we are inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban, and the area will be cleared soon.”
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, was somewhat more cautious, telling reporters that the battle situation has “changed to our benefit since yesterday.” He said Afghan forces “have been resisting and, God willing, they will continue to resist” the insurgents. He said that most other districts were out of danger but that Sangin, which has been under Taliban pressure for months, remains “a challenge we will try to overcome.”
The still-fluid situation in Helmand, a vast desert province on the Pakistani border that produces much of the world’s opium and heroin, underscores the increasing problems that have beset Afghan security forces as they attempt to take on hardened, nimble Taliban fighters — plus a new threat from well-armed insurgents allied with the Islamic State — without combat and air support from U.S. and NATO forces, which withdrew a year ago.
Several analysts said that the national army and police have often failed to coordinate their battlefield efforts and that low morale and lack of foreign air cover for ground forces has led to increased desertions since the NATO pullout. Taliban forces, meanwhile, have stepped up attacks in recent months, managing to capture the northern city of Kunduz for two weeks and laying siege to Kandahar airport for 26 hours, leaving 50 people dead.
On Monday, in a sharp reminder of the danger still facing the 9,800 U.S. troops who remain here to advise and train Afghan forces, a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked a military convoy near Bagram air base, killing six U.S. service members and wounding several other Americans and Afghans.
The ongoing battle for Helmand has far greater implications for the future of Afghanistan and the ability of its security forces to defend a weak democracy against a widening array of enemies. A recent report from the Pentagon said that the security situation is “deteriorating” across the country and that another hard year of fighting can be expected.
Some officials and outside analysts said Taliban fighters still control large portions of several districts in Helmand and could seize Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. On Monday, the deputy governor appealed for help to President Ashraf Ghani in a Facebook post, saying the province was in danger of being overrun.
Ghani’s spokesman said only that the president has “taken note” of the post and would take “necessary action.” Ghani has made no public statements since the Helmand crisis erupted, although aides said he has been focusing on the region for months and is in constant touch with army and police officials there.
Despite its remote location and sparse population, Helmand has long played an outsize psychological, economic and strategic role in the country’s fortunes, in part because of its border location and in part because of its domination of the lucrative opium trade. If the Taliban were to take over the province or establish a stronghold there, it would significantly boost the group’s war chest. Sangin’s market is the center of the trade.
“Sangin sets the price of opium for Afghanistan and the world,” said Waheed Mojda, an analyst in Kabul with ties to the former Taliban regime.
For U.S. and British forces, Sangin is a symbol of grueling, hard-won military victories over the Taliban and of sustained efforts to win over the local populace. British forces were based there for several years and lost a large number of troops; American troops took over in 2009 and launched a major effort to drive out the insurgents and foster local support for the Afghan government.
That success was an important impetus for President Obama’s troop “surge” aimed at ending the war. Now, the Taliban’s fighting capacity appears stronger than at any time in years, Afghan forces are struggling to fend them off, and Sangin is back in the thick of a conflict that could go either way.