The US carried out two airstrikes in Sangin district in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a region that has been overrun by Taliban fighters. The bombing was meant to bolster embattled government forces who may be on the verge of losing control over the country's largest province.
For weeks, the Taliban has been moving freely over large swaths of Helmand — a strategically important region known for its opium production. Last weekend, the deputy governor of the province pleaded publicly with President Ashraf Ghani for military aid, writing in a Facebook post that his province was "standing on the brink."
On Wednesday, a Taliban spokesperson said the group had captured police and administrative buildings in the center of the Sangin district, where small groups of police had been holding out. Government officials, however, have denied the claim and said they have pushed back Taliban insurgents.
Helmand's deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar, told Al Jazeera that government forces are "fighting to push back the Taliban," and that "parts of Sangin are under Taliban control, but not the police and military installations." Another local official, who spoke VICE News on the conditional of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, admitted that the police station and administrative headquarters had been overrun by the Taliban. But he said that the Afghan military had successful recaptured them over the last day.
The US airstrikes — carried out on Wednesday — may have tipped the scales. General Abdul Wodud, a senior army commander, confirmed that a joint Afghan and NATO operation backed by air support had managed to drive the Taliban back from central areas, killing 60 Taliban fighters and wounding 40. The interior ministry also said that security forces had killed a senior Taliban commander named Mullah Nasir.
While NATO headquarters in Kabul confirmed that the airstrikes had taken place, it gave no details.
"US forces conducted two strikes in Sangin district, Helmand Province, December 23, against threats to the force," US Army Colonel Michael Lawhorn said.
Before the strikes, the Taliban already held three Helmand districts and moved freely outside the main populations, centers exercising control over strategic transportation routes. That's made it nearly impossible for the Afghan army to reinforce and resupply security force units who are essentially cut off by the Taliban's advance. The Afghan government has resorted to airdropping in supplies to its forces trapped inside of Sangin.
Helmand abuts the Pakistani border, which makes it easy for the Taliban to resupply from its strongholds in Pakistan and maintain a steady stream of fighters. "Helmand has an open border and the terrorists continue their war supported by their sponsors in Afghanistan's neighborhood," Masoum Stanikzai, the acting defense minister, explained at a Kabul news conference Wednesday.
The loss of Sangin would be embarrassing for Western powers backing the Kabul government, since both the US and the UK have spent much blood and treasure trying to secure it in the past. Almost a quarter of UK casualties in Afghanistan took place fighting the Taliban in Sangin. And the US spent over $65 billion training the Afghan security forces so that western troops could take a backseat in the fighting.
Since 2014, the US and UK have pulled back their troops from the front lines, letting Afghan forces stand alone. But even with billions of dollars in aid, Afghan security forces still struggle to match the Taliban and hold on to Sangin, which is a small town with under 20,000 people. The military has also been plagued by mass desertions, a lack of supplies, and leadership confusion, as Afghan forces are often left in far-flung regions of the country without reinforcements or supplies.
This week NATO military advisers have been sent to Helmand, but no foreign troops will participate in combat operations on the ground.
The Taliban, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that foreign forces were directly involved in the fighting in Sangin and accusing them of carrying out airstrikes on residential areas.