WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are disputing reports the Taliban have retaken a hotly contested region in the opium-rich Helmand valley, saying local security forces made a planned, deliberate withdrawal from the Sangin district center after months of heavy fighting left their facilities in ruins.
"It is a complete fabrication," Navy Capt. William Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, told Military Times on Thursday. "This move has been in the planning for months. ... There is nothing left in the old district center except dirt and rubble."
The Taliban, he added, caused extensive damage to the local bazaar in Sangin, rendering it impossible for citizens to access government officials and services. A new municipal complex has been established about a mile to the south. From there, "the Afghan police can now do their jobs effectively," Salvin said, and the Afghan army elements posted to Sangin are "better positioned to take the fight to the Taliban."
An Afghan defense official echoed those sentiments.
U.S. aircraft were called in to airlift Afghan personnel to the new facility and, once the transfer was complete, destroy remaining structures and inoperable vehicles left behind. And while Afghan officials said they're preparing to mount an offensive aimed at reclaiming lost territory, the Taliban have branded the incident a retreat. Veterans of the war and those who've followed it closely over the years seem to agree, with some openly ridiculing the Americans' explanation of what transpired on Thursday.
Indeed, the Afghans have struggled to keep a resurgent Taliban at bay. Today, about 57 percent of the country's 407 districts are controlled by the government, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. In Helmand, some estimates indicate the Taliban occupy 80 percent of the province. That's significant, as the poppy crop cultivated there funds much of their activity.
Last month, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan called the 15-year war a "stalemate," saying more U.S. troops are needed if there's to be any hope of the Afghans regaining momentum. Other military leaders and some members of Congress support such a move, though it's unclear whether the White House does.
Sangin was a huge focus for U.S. and British forces during the war's peak. Hundreds of coalition casualties were recorded there. Its loss would represent a symbolic blow for that reason, though some question Sangin's broader strategic significance.
"The main strategic objective in Sangin is that it is a center for heroin manufacturing and trading, both of which the Taliban tax," said Dr. Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert with the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. However, the drug trade doesn’t fund the Taliban alone, he noted. It has propped up the Afghan government, too, and various criminal gangs.
Sangin's loss, Rubin contends, would be merely "a temporary tactical matter that affects morale." There is little significance to either side in the battlefield moving a mile south, he added. It offers no clear military advantage. If there's to be reconciliation, Rubin said, it must be achieved politically.
Shawn Snow is a staff writer and Military Times' Early Bird editor. On Twitter:
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.