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Afghan insurgents gaining as Trump rolls out war plan

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Members of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command during a ceremony at Camp Morehead in Afghanistan on Aug. 20.

KABUL, Afghanistan >> Taliban insurgents overran the government headquarters of a district in northern Afghanistan on Monday, the latest in a string of losses for Kabul, just hours before President Donald Trump was to unveil his long-delayed strategic plan for handling the nearly 16-year war.

The headquarters in Khamab district in the province of Jawzjan was taken by insurgents today, said the spokesman for the Afghan National Army’s commando units, Ahmad Jawid Salim, who said Afghan forces planned to recapture it. The Taliban also said on their website that they had taken the district.

It was the sixth place in Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban in the past month — five districts and a strategic valley — even as casualties and armed clashes have risen to their highest levels of the war. On an average day, 31 members of the Afghan national security forces are killed, as well as nine civilians, according to data from a variety of official sources. Taliban casualties are not known.

Such numbers underline the challenge facing Trump as he prepares to address the U.S. public about the war Monday night. He is expected to announce an increase in the number of U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan, in line with previous requests by his generals, who have asked for several thousand more. That would still make the U.S. military presence far smaller than at its peak of 100,000 soldiers under President Barack Obama.

Amid their recent gains, the insurgents have had setbacks. Two of the six places that fell to the Taliban in the past month were taken back by the government. In addition, government forces in the southern province of Helmand retook Nawa district, which had long been held by the insurgents, in July.

But the Taliban now control or dominate 48 of the country’s roughly 400 administrative areas, the most they have held since being ousted from power in 2001, based on data provided by the U.S. military to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The inspector general’s last quarterly report to Congress listed 45 such districts, based on data through the end of June, and the Taliban have made a net gain of three districts since then.

Among the most recent to fall was Jani Khel, in Paktia province close to the eastern border with Pakistan, which the insurgents took on Aug. 10. That district has changed hands at least three times since 2016 and twice just this month, underlining its importance to both sides as a transit area for the Haqqani network, a powerful Taliban faction, to and from its Pakistani sanctuaries. Government officials claim that neither side really controls the district, where fighting continues.

On Aug. 13, the Taliban took the center of Ghormach district in Faryab province in the north, although the Afghan National Army retains control of a base in the district, which is under Taliban siege and being resupplied by helicopter. “If reinforcements don’t reach them, the situation will get badly worse,” said the district governor, Abdullah Waqif, who estimated that as many as 500 Afghan soldiers were at the base.

On Monday, a government spokesmen said the soldiers were still trapped there, but that heavy Afghan airstrikes had killed 80 insurgents and destroyed a dozen of their motorcycles.

On Aug. 6, what was asserted to be a combined force of Taliban and Islamic State group militants overran the strategic valley of Mirza Olang in Sar-e-pul province in the north. Hundreds of the valley’s Shia residents fled amid claims that the insurgents, who are Sunni, were beheading Shias and enslaving and raping women. The government claimed Monday that its forces had retaken the valley.

In a report condemning the violence, the United Nations accused the insurgents of killing 36 people who were civilians or had put down their weapons, but said no evidence of rape or beheadings had been found.

Over the past month, Taliban insurgents also took the districts of Taiwara, in the western province of Ghor, and Kohistan in Faryab province, but government forces have since retaken both of them, according to local officials.

The tempo of fighting has greatly increased throughout Afghanistan this year, judging from the numbers of civilians and combatants killed. In the first half of 2017, civilians were dying at a rate of nine a day, according to U.N. data.

A senior U.S. military official said an average of 20 Afghan National Army soldiers were being killed each day this month. Separately, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior, Najib Danish, cited statistics showing that 1,302 police officers had been killed from March 21 through Aug. 16, about nine a day.

And Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction statistics showed that another 181 Afghan local police officers were killed over a similar period, about two a day. Taken together, the figures suggest that an average of 31 Afghan combatants are being killed daily, not counting insurgents, along with nine civilians.

Last year, 6,000 Afghan soldiers were estimated to have been killed, according to senior military officials. That is far more than the roughly 3,500 fatalities sustained by U.S. and coalition forces during the entire war, and Afghan soldiers’ reported death rate is running even higher this year.

Last week saw the 11th U.S. soldier die in Afghanistan this year. Most of those killed have been Special Forces or Special Operations soldiers. Of the 8,800 U.S. soldiers in the country, along with 6,575 allied and NATO troops, about 3,300 are believed to be Special Operations fighters.

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