Afghan forces' retreat in Helmand should help battle Taliban: minister

An Afghan security walks as smoke billows from a building after a Taliban attack in Gereshk district of Helmand province, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Abdul Malik (Reuters)

By Mohammad Stanekzai and James Mackenzie LASHKAR GAH/SORAB, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The surprise withdrawal of Afghan forces from parts of Helmand province may leave large areas under Taliban control, but it should bolster the defenses of the volatile southern region, the country's top defense official said. Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai said it made little sense to spread forces across sparsely populated districts like Musa Qala and Naw Zad, where government troops pulled out in February. "We needed reorganization. There was a lot of pressure in different parts of Helmand," he told Reuters in Helmand, where he met local tribal elders and commanders of the Afghan army's 215th Corps last week. "It was exhausting forces in desert areas where they have less influence on the security of the civilians," he said. "More importantly, when you look at the strategy the terrorist groups are adopting, they are moving, they're in small groups, they move from one place to another place." The decision to relocate forces corresponded with the views of NATO commanders, who say Afghan troops have been spread too thinly in static checkpoints, handing the initiative to the Taliban. Hundreds of U.S. troops have been deployed to Helmand since February to support local soldiers in advising roles, while U.S. warplanes have stepped up air strikes there this year. Helmand, a mainly desert region bordering Pakistan, is of strategic and symbolic importance as a heartland of the Taliban. More American and British troops died there than in any other province of Afghanistan since arriving after the fall of the Islamist government in late 2001. The province also sits along major smuggling routes for drugs and weapons and is the region that accounts for the biggest share of opium cultivation, a key source of revenue to the Taliban. The Islamist militants' gains in the province underline the danger they pose to Afghan security, now NATO has withdrawn most combat troops, leaving a smaller training and advisory mission. The guerrilla movement is opposed to any foreign troops on Afghan soil, and wants to return to power in Kabul and reimpose its strict interpretation of Islamic law. CONTROLLING MOVEMENT Government forces are now grouped closer to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and nearby towns including Marjah and Gereshk, straddling the main Highway One that links the major cities of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west. To the north of the highway, they are also holding on in Sangin and in Kajaki, where they are protecting a vital dam and power station that supplies electricity to Kandahar. Adding to the challenge of outwitting a nimble enemy, the Western-backed government in Kabul must overcome public distrust of the local armed forces. "They are busy filling their own pockets rather than taking care of security," said Mohammad Akhondzada, one of hundreds of tribal elders and scholars who met in the provincial capital to express their concern about worsening security. "The Taliban are now at the doorstep of Lashkar Gah and threatening the city." The complex and shifting tribal politics of the province have defied central government control for decades. But the loss of the province would severely undermine the credibility of President Ashraf Ghani's government and leave the strategic city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, exposed. Stanekzai acknowledged that the situation was "not rosy", but said that by positioning troops in strategic zones where they could block the flow of fighters in and out of the province, security forces could regain the initiative. "We have to get the fighting out of the villages, we have to close the border, we have to reach the areas where the movement of fighters is taking place," he said. As well as the Taliban, government forces in Helmand have been fighting foreign groups including Al Qaeda and Islamic State sympathizers, and Stanekzai said their presence underlined the need for continued international support. But troops are weary after months of continuous fighting, their morale sapped by corruption, poor equipment and lack of supplies. The 215th corps is undergoing retraining and refitting and dozens of senior officers, including the corps commander, have been replaced. The corps recently retook the isolated southern district of Khanishin close to the border with Pakistan after persuading local people to abandon support for the Taliban, and Stanekzai said winning over the population would be vital. But after months of steady reverses, patience with the administration in Kabul is wearing thin. "People are fed up with injustice of government officials," said Hafizullah Khan, another elder at the Lashkar Gah meeting. "Therefore they're much closer to the Taliban and welcome them." (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Mike Collett-White)