More than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2001, Helmand province has been at the center of the Taliban’s resurgence and insurgency in Afghanistan. Before the conclusion of NATO’s combat mission, over 20,000 troops from the United States and other NATO states were deployed beside the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in Helmand, but failed to thwart the Taliban’s resurgence by winning the “hearts and minds” of the people. Moreover, their efforts cost billions of dollars coupled with the blood of thousands of Afghan and international soldiers alike.
Since the ANDSF took on the security responsibility of Afghanistan in December 2014, the security situation in Helmand has further deteriorated. Despite the deployment of more than 30,000 ANDSF troops in Helmand—with nearly 1,000 U.S. forces providing training, advice, and assistance—the Taliban claim control of almost eleven districts in Helmand, with their white flags flying even in parts of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
In their recent gains, the Taliban suffered more causalities than the ANDSF, as the government forces were in defensive positions equipped with relatively heavy weapons and more battalions. The commander of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Marjah district, Haji Gula Mawla Malang, said, “Whenever the Taliban insurgents attacked our checkpoints, they got three-fold causalities compared to us because our checkpoints are located in dominant positions.” Likewise, the Taliban’s commander in Marjah district told a local journalist, “We use many insurgents to confront the ANDSF in Helmand, if we use the same number of insurgents in any (other) regions of Afghanistan, we will be able to overrun a few provinces.”
This raises the questions of what drives the Taliban to push so hard for Helmand? There are five primary factors.
First of all, Helmand is the largest province in Afghanistan, with a total area of 22,619 square miles — almost equal in size to Croatia and twice the size of Belgium. It is three times larger than Balkh, seven times larger than Nangarhar, 16 times larger than Panjshir, and 31 times larger than Kapisa. Seizing Helmand’s districts requires only overcoming a few military units, unlike a small province like Kapisa, which has a denser security apparatus.
Second, Helmand is among the most fertile provinces of Afghanistan. The Helmand river flows throughout the province and a relatively organized canal system in some of the districts irrigates agricultural lands. Its climate is also suitable for the cultivation of a wide range of crops, including the opium that contributes greatly to the Taliban’s finances. In addition to the agricultural tax, the marble mine in the Khanashin district of Helmand is another financial source for the Taliban. The militants collect billions of Pakistani rupees from the illegal excavation of marble and smuggling it to Pakistan.
Third, Helmand is located on the Kabul-Herat national highway, which connects western provinces to Kandahar and Kabul. It is located next to Nimroz, Farah, and Ghor in the west, to Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Day-Kundi in the south, and shares an international border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province where the Taliban’s so-called Quetta Shura resides. The famous narcotics smuggling hub called “Bahramcha” is also located in southern Helmand, which is connected to Pakistan’s Balochistan and Iran. Therefore, if the Taliban gain control of Helmand, they will be able to block the western provinces from the southern provinces and even Kabul. Meanwhile, they will be able to accrue millions of dollars in funding through opium and other smuggling.
Fourth, Helmand’s warm weather—with a mere two to three months of mild winter—allows the insurgents to easily mobilize and conduct their asymmetric operations without the need for harsh weather outfits. Hence, the Taliban operate almost throughout the year, be it on the battlefield or collecting financial resources for their insurgencies in other provinces.
Finally, the lack of security, education, infrastructure (schools and medical clinics), electricity, access to justice, employment, and other basic services in Helmand has caused local citizens to grow dissatisfied with the central government. Ever since Helmand became a battlefield, its innocent citizens paid a high price by losing their loved ones and property. This legacy of pain has further agitated them against the government. The Taliban take advantage of local grievances and manipulate the sentiments of these deprived citizens, recruiting them to their fronts.
The Way Forward
Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani played all his cards to bring Taliban to the negotiating table, he couldn’t achieve any serious results, especially after the mid-April deadly attack in Kabul. This left him with no other option other than to consider a change of policy. The uncertain peace talks look even less likely to succeed after the clampdown following the demise of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was hit by a U.S. drone strike in Balochistan in late-May. This incident unfolded burgeoning threats from the Taliban, who sought to take revenge for their late supreme leader by plotting a series of attacks in Afghanistan. A recent attack on a provincial court vehicle in Kabul that killed 11 people was the first of what is likely to be a long-lasting period of retaliation.
Considering the fact that the Taliban aim to gain full control of Helmand this summer, it is imperative for Ghani to address the impediments in Helmand by removing corrupt commanders and introducing a reward and punishment system. Based on anonymous reports, lower and mid-level ANDSF personnel are not pleased with the support they receive from Kabul. One ANDSF soldier in Helmand, who requested to remain anonymous, told the authors that “they spent days and nights in the battlefield, but corrupt officials sitting in Kabul get the medals of honor.”
In such a crucial time, the Afghan Ministry of Defense and National Directorate of Security are still led by acting officials. By contrast, despite the possible rifts among the Taliban regarding the appointment of their new leader, the militants managed to swiftly appoint Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader, to avoid any additional splintering. With Akhundzada’s appointment, they can get back on track to carry out their fight across different provinces.
It is evident that peace cannot be achieved through violence, but considering the reality on the ground, Ghani, as the commander-in-chief of the army, must thoroughly review the security situation in Helmand by focusing on the existing structure of ANDSF. There should be more than 33,000 ANDSF personnel in Helmand but currently there isn’t even half of that number present in the field; moreover, the rates of insider attacks and desertion are also rising.
Since the local police have been effective in Helmand, the number of police should be increased within the ANDSF structure. Finally, it is equally important to target the financial resources of Taliban by striking their financial backers, including by taking control of Bahramcha market and the marble mine in Khanashin district. In the long-run, it would be pragmatic to consider restructuring Helmand into three—or at least two—provinces, since with the current administrative structure, the gigantic province is difficult to administer.
Najibullah Noorzai is an Afghan researcher specializing in the areas of rule of law, anti-corruption, counter-narcotics, and security.
Naqeebullah Miakhel is an Afghan researcher based in Helmand with a Masters degree from OSCE Academy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.