Irshad Salim — Afghan security forces supported by US air power have retaken the volatile Nawa district (Nawa was overrun last year) from the Taliban as part of a drive to weaken the insurgents’ hold on southern Helmand province and push them back from around its capital, Lashkar Gah, US officials said on Monday.
The offensive comes as one important district after another in the province has fallen or been threatened by Taliban insurgents.
Helmand is the largest province in Afghanistan — roughly the same size as West Virginia. And if you’ve never driven through West Virginia, maybe a better comparison would be that Helmand is bigger than New Hampshire, New Jersey and and Connecticut combined.
In recent years despite the presence of tens of thousands of Afghan and NATO troops, it is still regarded a battlefield.
According to reports, backed by strikes from F-16 fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, Afghan troops began the two-day offensive Saturday near Lashkar Gah.
More than 50 fighters were killed and vehicles and equipment were destroyed, said Afghan defense ministry spokesman General Dawlat Waziri. Over 100 improvised explosive devices were also disabled, Task Force Southwest, the U.S. Marine Corps-led training and assistance mission in Helmand said in a statement.
Officials said the operation to retake the center of Nawa would improve security in Lashkar Gar, particularly at an airfield just outside the city.
The operation, which comes as the United States weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, will continue with security forces moving further south, officials said.
The US military touted the advance against the Taliban as a significant success for the Afghan security forces, which have struggled to contain a resurgent Taliban in recent years.
Afghan police Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Omar said the US air support was an important part of the operation.
“The air support provided by the coalition forces increased the morale among the Afghan uniform police personnel,” he said in a statement.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis is reportedly finalizing plans to present a new Afghanistan strategy to President Donald Trump in a bid to reverse what US generals call a “stalemate” at best in a war that has already stretched over nearly 16 years and costing $4 million an hour.
The Taliban, fighting to drive out international forces backing the government in Kabul, control large stretches of Helmand, an insurgent heartland that is source of much of the world’s illegal opium — over 5500 metric tons per annum, according to an estimate. The province is also resource-rich with minerals such as uranium and straddles Iran on iits southwest and Pakistan on its southeast.