Taliban militants overran several checkpoints in southern Helmand province and killed at least 25 policemen over the past two days, officials said Monday, in the first major assaults in the province since the insurgents named a new leader last week.
While the Taliban made major inroads in Helmand last year, the violence had seemed relatively contained in recent months, after broad changes by the Afghan Army there and a new influx of U.S. troops and advisers. But the fighting has once again intensified, with an increased tempo of attacks in the districts of Nad Ali, Gereshk, Sangin and Marja, as well as in Babaji, a suburb of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Death toll varies
Gul Agha, a commander of Afghan Local Police militia forces in Gereshk District, said Taliban fighters overran five checkpoints in the district bordering the provincial capital and killed 12 fighters and executed their unit commander.
“A local commander named Safar Muhammad Akka was dragged and hanged in Yakhchal area of Gereshk by Taliban,” Agha said. “He was an old man, but very anti-Taliban.”
A regional police commander, Esmatullah Dawlatzai, put the death toll at 25 members of the national police and Afghan Local Police militia fighters, with an additional 15 wounded, across three districts over the past two days. But the head of the Helmand provincial council, Abdul Karim Attal, said Monday that as many as 35 to 40 policemen were killed or wounded in the past 24 hours of fighting across several districts.
Attal said the government had repeatedly announced operations to clear Taliban threats, but little progress had been made.
“The reason is that the security officials are involved in corruption – they are selling weapons, bullets and want to continue the same condition,” Attal said. “If we don’t see keen focus to change the overall security policy here, we will lose the province.”
After their supreme leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, the Taliban announced the promotion of his deputy, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, as their new leader Wednesday. As happened with the insurgency’s leadership change last summer, officials expect violence to escalate after the selection of Mawlawi Haibatullah, a former judge with deep religious credentials but who is not known for military victories.
Following a pattern
However, Farhad Dawari, a university lecturer and analyst based in Lashkar Gah, said the escalation in Helmand followed the patterns of previous years and probably had less do with Mawlawi Haibatullah’s selection.
The Taliban use the winter months for training and the early spring months to reap the taxes and other benefits from opium fields. With those two things behind them, he said, the insurgents will begin pressing the Helmand provincial capital again.
“What we are hearing is that the Taliban’s elite force is trying is to make its way from Musa Qala District and is set on taking Lashkar Gah,” Dawari said.