Afghan soldiers have been slowly pushing up through a fertile river valley in southern Helmand province, with special forces mounting night-time helicopter raids on mud-brick compounds and ground troops advancing across the poppy fields that, in past years, have been the insurgents’ main cash crop.
US and British troops suffered some of their biggest losses of the decade-long war here, seizing territory that was later lost by ill-equipped and poorly trained Afghan forces.
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has vowed to break the grim cycle, and the latest offensive is widely seen as a test for his efforts to overhaul the army and police since taking office in September. Mr Ghani was personally involved in planning operation Zolfiqar (“double-edged sword”), and is expected to travel to Washington later this month to seek enhanced US military back-up, particularly air support.
“This is an incredibly important operation,” one western diplomat said. “This is Ghani’s attempt to demonstrate to the US Congress that Afghan ground forces are able to take the lead and conduct offensive operations if they have the right enablers to support them.”
The assault coincides with Afghan government efforts to open a preliminary dialogue with insurgent leaders in the hope of moving toward peace talks, and ahead of the Taleban’s traditional spring fighting season, which is this year expected to be particularly violent. An Afghan official said preliminary “trust-building” discussions were expected “in the near future”. Officials and diplomats said both sides would be aiming to enter any meetings from a position of strength gained on the battlefield.
“For Ghani, failure [in Helmand] is simply not an option,” the western diplomat said.
US military leaders have advised the troops in Helmand and helped plan the operation, but American troops are not involved in the fighting. Afghan forces have already cleared large areas where the insurgents had been entrenched for more than a decade. They found bunkers, tunnels, trench lines and a giant slingshot apparently used to fire grenades at government forces.
The Sangin district, which had seen months of heavy fighting, was declared clear last Friday. Police said 385 Taleban fighters, including 31 commanders, had been killed in Sangin.
Hospitals in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, and the national capital, Kabul, saw casualty numbers almost double in February due to increased insurgent violence across the country.