Rotation of Coalition Forces Brings New Hope to Helmand Province

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 12

With the onset of a wide operation against the Taliban in Garmsir district of Helmand province, once again the lawless Helmand province has become the focus of national and international circles. On April 30, the U.S. Marines announced they had recaptured Garmsir district from Taliban control and entered governmental buildings (BBC, April 30). Since this operation was launched, at least 10 insurgents have been reported killed or injured every day during the Marines’ operations in different areas of Helmand.

The return of U.S. forces to this volatile southern province has been accompanied by rumors in Helmand and Kabul that the U.S. forces will eventually be replaced by British troops who were in charge of Helmand for the past two years. Such a development would be generally unwelcome in the province. Meanwhile, the redeployment of U.S. troops to Helmand has brought hopes for the betterment of security and easing of the insurgency in at least parts of this neo-Taliban-dominated province. These developments in Helmand over the last two months, however, need to be examined so that there can be a clear vision of where Helmand stands and to distinguish the status of the leading players there.

The General Situation of Helmand

Following U.S. operations in Garmsir district and raids by NATO forces on Musa Qala and other areas of Helmand, there have been reports that violence has eased in the center of neo-Taliban power. An aware resident of the Nawamish area of Helmand province told Jamestown that in comparison to last year, the movement of the Taliban in Helmand for now is very low and few in number. On the condition of anonymity, the resident said that by the start of the spring and good weather, people were expecting more attacks and violence from the Taliban, but stressed that this year the situation in the province has changed (Author’s interview with a Nawamish district resident). Meanwhile, another source who did not want to be named told Jamestown that the general mood and morale of the Taliban is very weak in comparison to last year. He admitted that even in Musa Qala district, once called the Taliban’s “university of terror,” the insurgents are weak and have lost their power to maneuver (Author’s interview). This assessment was confirmed by an Afghan MP from Helmand province, who says that the Taliban’s tactic of attack and escape has seen only limited use since the start of 2008 and they have not been successful in putting serious pressure on government forces or international troops. That said, the Taliban are in control of some districts of Helmand and have recently divided into two groups as well. Reports confirm a rift within the local Taliban and say that in comparison to last year, the Taliban’s ability to coordinate in Helmand is in question.

Rift within the Helmand Taliban

Among the public in Helmand’s Lashkar Gah district there are rumors of a wide rift between the different Taliban groups. In interviews with Jamestown, many residents of Lashkar Gah admitted this rift and said that a high-ranking Taliban official who had recently joined the government was killed by his former comrades. These residents point out that the murder of this influential former Taliban leader—who still had many loyalists among the neo-Taliban of Helmand—caused deep divisions between two groups of insurgents (Author’s interviews with Laskhkar Gah residents and individuals).

Meanwhile, an Afghan official, on condition of anonymity, admitted the gap between the Taliban forces. He named the murdered influential Taliban leader as Haji Abdur Rahman who had joined the government and was based in the city of Laskar Gah. He said that recently Haji Abdur Rahman had been on a trip to Marjah district, where he wanted to solve some problems among the Taliban. On his way back to Lashkar Gah city—the provincial capital—a group of Taliban killed him together with his associates.

Meanwhile, there are reports of changes in the Taliban administration of Helmand. The neo-Taliban forces have set up provincial administrations for every province of Afghanistan. For Helmand, the Taliban announced a governor, district chiefs and judges. During the last few years, the Taliban governor of Helmand was someone named Mullah Abdur Rahim Akhund who was appointed to control Helmand and lead the Taliban insurgents there. But now the Taliban have announced the replacement of Mullah Abdur Rahim Akhund with a new governor named Mullah Mistari Akhund. Although the names are fictitious, some sources confirm these changes among the top officials of the local Taliban.

The Taliban’s Power Base in Helmand

The Taliban’s main base of power is now in some districts of Helmand province which were gained by the insurgents during the last two years. On March 3, Amrullah Salih of the National Security Department of Afghanistan confirmed that four districts of Helmand province are still under the control of Taliban insurgents; namely, Deshu, Khanshin, Baghran and Washir (Tolo TV, March 3). In his March 3 speech in Afghanistan’s parliament, the head of the National Security Department of Afghanistan never mentioned the Taliban’s control over Garmsir district, which is now controlled by U.S. forces.

Two months after Amrullah Salih’s comments, some sources maintain the Taliban still control these provinces. One official said that the districts of Washir, Barghran, Khanshin and Nawzad are not under the control of the Afghan government (Author’s interview). Nawzad district has a variety of passages to the western Farah province where insurgent activity has increased in the last year. The districts of Khanshin and Deshu are located on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have many ways into the neighboring country’s territory. Khanshin also has routes to the insurgents’ bases in the southwestern province of Nimruz.

The Taliban in Helmand can resist government and Coalition forces partly because of the support they receive from either Pakistan or the neighboring Nimruz and Farah provinces. An Afghan MP from Helmand, Niamathullah Ghafari, told Jamestown that whenever the Taliban feel themselves to be under pressure, they escape to Farah, Nimruz or Pakistan. According to Ghafari, the Taliban’s control over these four districts of Helmand is due to the fact that they have never been confined to these districts (Author’s interview with Ghafari).

The Taliban’s Chain of Command

In Helmand the Taliban are reported to be controlled by Mullah Berader Akhund, the deputy of Mullah Omar. Although it is not confirmed whether Berader is directly engaged in the planning, coordination and implementation processes of the insurgents’ operations against the government and international forces, it is clear that he has been given the power to be the core commander of the Taliban in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan.

Aside from Mullah Berader, some residents of the Nad Ali district of Helmand province say that they have heard Mullah Naqib Akhund is back at the frontlines in Helmand. This claim has not been confirmed, as it was recently announced that Mullah Naqib was injured and arrested by government forces and was supposedly in prison. The other well-known commanders of the Helmand Taliban are said to be the aforementioned former Taliban governor of Helmand, Mullah Abdur Rahim Akhund, and his replacement, Mullah Mistari Akhund.

Helmand Public Opinion of Afghan and International Forces in Helmand

The majority of Helmandis appear to be optimistic about the performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Helmand province. The ANA forces have been widely welcomed by different groups of Helmand citizens who are supportive of these forces (Author’s interview with many residents of Lashkar Gah city). Some people said that the National Army forces were doing their duty in accordance with Afghan culture and traditions. Many people, however, were negative regarding the performance of that part of the Afghan Police forces called the “Helping Police.” These police forces were deployed during the last two years, but it is reported that the new governor of Helmand province has removed most of the so-called “Helping Police,” whom the people claim are mostly drug addicts and members of criminal groups.

Meanwhile, Helmand MP Niamathullah Ghafari told Jamestown that most of Helmand’s citizens are happier with the Afghan forces than the British troops. He added that the people also have a good opinion of the U.S. forces.

According to Ghafari, many Helmandis know that four decades ago the Americans built a great deal of infrastructure in Helmand. They point to the work done by Americans in Lashkar Gah city, including the U.S.-built school and hospital and the U.S.-built Bughra dam. On the other hand, many still have negative impressions of the British occupation of Afghanistan, particularly during the period of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

In what was once called the center of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, there are at most 3,000 Taliban insurgents still in the field. The current situation in Helmand is expected to improve in comparison to that of the last two years. There are expectations that with the redeployment of U.S. troops and nearly 6,000 Afghan National Police and ANA to Helmand, the insurgency and related violence will ease in the near future.