An Afghan security official stands guard at the checkpost in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on March 21. Taliban forces overran the Sangin district in the province. (Watan Yar/European Pressphoto Agency)

The capital of a strategic southern district — where Western troops once spent months fighting to dislodge Taliban forces in the most famous clash of the 16-year Afghan war — has passed quietly into the hands of Taliban insurgents without a shot being fired.    

In a flurry of events Wednesday, Afghan army and police units withdrew from the center of the Sangin district in Helmand province, taking their equipment with them and potentially allowing Taliban forces to enter, according to tribal leaders, military officials and a Taliban spokesman.

Afghan and U.S. military officials denied news reports that Sangin had fallen to Taliban insurgents, as did provincial officials. Instead, they characterized the events as a preplanned relocation of government and military facilities outside the town to avoid civilian casualties. 

But the impression was inescapable that Sangin, the site of a deadly, months-long battle by British and other coalition troops to capture the Taliban-held district a decade ago, had just been lost again. The town has suffered repeated insurgent attacks in recent months, as the Taliban has pressed ahead with a sustained, broader effort to seize much of Helmand

“It is a surprise that they have just left the place, despite so much sacrifice. This is an important district, and we suffered heavy human and material losses to capture it in the first place,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired ­Afghan general and military analyst in Kabul. “We should not abandon even a small area for the enemy, let alone an important place like this.”

An army spokesman in Helmand, Mohammed Rassool, said local security officials had decided to evacuate the forces to a nearby military base after learning that Taliban fighters had occupied local homes. “We didn’t want to fire back to avoid civilian casualties,” he said.

Rassool said no fighting had immediately precipitated the move, but added that “the Taliban have been trying for years to capture Sangin. They did it yesterday.”

However, spokesmen for both the Afghan Defense Ministry and the U.S.-led military mission here said that Afghan forces are “still in Sangin” and insisted that the district had not “fallen” to the insurgents. They said that government forces had merely shifted their location about one mile away and that the move was planned in advance.    

Navy Capt. William Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S.-led Resolute Support Mission, said Afghan officials had “repositioned the district center” because insurgents had destroyed much of the area’s infrastructure and shopping bazaar in recent months, making it difficult for civilians to reach government offices and services. 

“This move to a new district center has been planned for some time,” Salvin said, adding that U.S. forces helped airlift all Afghan forces to the new location, and then helped destroy the buildings in the old center as well as vehicles that were no longer usable.   

The Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Dawlat Waziri, confirmed that the Afghan army battalion stationed in Sangin was still based inside the district.

Hayatullah Hayat, the governor of Helmand, also denied that the district had fallen into enemy hands. He said government facilities and troops had been “tactically” moved from the downtown area at the request of local residents to avoid civilian casualties in case of attack. 

“Sangin has not fallen. We only withdrew from the bazaar at the request of the people,” Hayat said by phone from Laskhar Gah. “There was no bullet fired and no weapon left behind. We have hundreds of troops there. Our goal was to provide the means for people to live and work.”

But Hayat painted a portrait of a town that has been gradually destroyed by repeated Taliban attacks in recent months, after a lull of several years in which development and normalcy began to return. Hayat said that the insurgents had blown up official posts in the market area, that many shops and homes were in ruins, and that “all government institutions” had been destroyed in previous fighting,

“The Taliban have fired scores of mortars daily at us, and the civilians were caught in the middle. The aim of the pullout from the bazaar was to stop civilian loss of life,” he said, adding that security operations will soon be launched to “secure all roads leading to the bazaar.”

Salvin described a similar situation, saying that “excessive damage by the Taliban to the area in the bazaar made it impossible for the people to see the government leaders and made it difficult to provide necessary services.”

The significance of the government withdrawal from Sangin’s central town is not so much military as psychological and historic. The Taliban already controls several major districts in Helmand, a vast desert province that borders Pakistan, and its fighters have surrounded and attempted to attack the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, for many months.

Afghan and NATO military officials have vowed repeatedly to prevent the fall of Lashkar Gah, saying it would be a crippling blow to the war effort. The United States also sent contingents of Marines into Helmand and conducted airstrikes there last year to bolster Afghan forces. 

But Sangin, a district of fewer than 100,000 people in the heart of Helmand’s lucrative opium poppy-growing region, holds a unique place in the conflict. A decade ago, it was the site of a fierce and protracted battle in which thousands of British and other foreign troops fought for nine months to expel Taliban forces, who had held it for five years after their regime in Kabul was overthrown.

The conflict raged from the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2007, when coalition forces finally drove out the Taliban. At the time, NATO officials compared the combat to the Korean War, and British soldiers nicknamed the area “Sangingrad,” after the battle of Stalingrad in World
War II.        

The extremist militia has been trying to get Sangin back ever since, and several times it has nearly succeeded.

In January, Taliban fighters launched a strong attack against government positions in Sangin, killing more than 100 soldiers and police officers, but they were driven back with help from extra troops and airstrikes. Officials said the fighters used tunnels from private houses to reach front-line government checkpoints.