Despite Ramadan, US officials brace for Taliban attack in Helmand
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 1, 2016
WASHINGTON – Newly trained troops in Afghanistan have begun a “slow, steady” assault on the Taliban-held Marjah District in the country’s Helmand province, though it is unclear what impact the holy month of Ramadan will have on security in the volatile region, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.
Afghan security forces began their offensive this week on Marjah, which fell into Taliban hands last year amid massive failures by the Afghan military, said Army Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, a Kabul-based spokesman for the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan. But their efforts have been slowed by Taliban roadside bombs and sniper fire.
The holy month of Ramadan begins Sunday, which traditionally has meant a lull in fighting. But Cleveland warned Wednesday that it might not be the case this year in Helmand, where the United States still anticipates a major Taliban offensive.
“We don’t know exactly when it will be,” he said of the attack. “I don’t know that we’ll see something much more aggressive as we go a little bit deeper into June, but (Ramadan) is still a little bit of a wildcard for us.”
Helmand saw some of the most vicious fighting between the Taliban and the U.S.-led NATO coalition throughout the 15 years of war in Afghanistan. Nearly 1,000 NATO troops, including hundreds of U.S. Marines, died fighting in the country’s southern province.
But Cleveland said the United States is confident in the abilities of the Afghan security forces. In Helmand, the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps replaced its senior leadership, which was largely blamed by the United States for poor morale and other issues last year when the Taliban ousted the Afghan military from Marjah and several other areas throughout the province.
Under their new corps and brigade commanders, Cleveland said, the Afghans have undergone retraining, largely conducted by a battalion of American soldiers. Additional Afghan forces are near the conclusion of their retraining and are expected to join the fight by the end of June.
“We do believe the (Afghan security forces) have had some success,” Cleveland said. “They’ve performed better than they did last year, and right now we do think that they have momentum as we go into Ramadan and as we go into the summer months.”
The Americans had expected a full Taliban assault on Helmand following the conclusion of the poppy harvest. During that season, many Taliban fighters left the front lines to harvest opium, the group’s main revenue source. But while fighting has picked up in recent days, especially in Helmand’s rural south, that assault has not yet come, Cleveland said.
Instead, the general said, the Taliban have been conducting small strikes on checkpoints or Afghan defensive positions, and withdrawing from the area as Afghan soldiers or police respond.
“You see the Taliban massing at night, going in and hitting a checkpoint and moving out very, very quickly before reinforcements can be sent or anything else,” Cleveland said.