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Dozens of Afghan troops surrender to Taliban in central province

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 31, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of Afghan troops have surrendered with large amounts of military equipment to the Taliban in central Uruzgan province, a local government official said, as the insurgents continue to gain ground throughout the country.

The Taliban had surrounded the troops’ base in Chori district for more than a month, preventing food and support from reaching them, said the high-level official with direct knowledge of the situation who was not allowed to speak to the media about the incident.

A Defense Ministry spokesman acknowledged that the troops were now in Taliban custody but disputed the characterization of their action as surrender, suggesting instead they might have been captured.

The soldiers were taken into Taliban custody on Saturday,  a day before the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released data showing the Afghan government had lost control of or influence over more than 2 percent of the territory it controlled between May and August. Overall, about a third of the country is under insurgent control or at risk of falling to their control, the report said.

Afghan security analyst Ali Mohammad Ali said Afghan forces could be finding it difficult to keep up with increasing Taliban attacks across Afghanistan. The militants have been threatening some major urban centers, including Kunduz in the north and Lashkar Gar in Helmand province in the southwest. Afghan military officials have often complained that they do not get reinforcements in a timely manner and are often left short of supplies.

“When you look at the security incidents across Afghanistan, I feel like, for the government, Uruzgan is not a top priority, which is unfortunate,” Ali said.On Saturday, after discussions with the Taliban facilitated by tribal leaders, the 41 troops — including two commanders — agreed to hand over military vehicles, including three Humvees, and a large cache of light and heavy weapons in exchange for their safety, the unnamed Uruzgan official said.

“The main reason they surrendered is because they were surrounded for almost 45 days and we couldn’t bring food and (other) things to them and provide them with adequate logistical support,” the official said.

Afghan media initially reported that the troops had defected and joined the Taliban, but a statement on the group’s website said that the men had surrendered and would be released soon as part of the deal they had made with the troops.

Gen. Dawlat Waziri, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, would not confirm that the troops had surrendered. suggesting that they might have been captured instead.“In the military, there is this thing that if you come under a lot of pressure, then there is a possibility to be taken captive,” Waziri said.

He said a government delegation had been sent to Uruzgan to find out exactly what had happened.

Uruzgan, an area of long-standing tribal rivalries, has a long history of Taliban activity. Today, many provincial tribal leaders cooperate with the group instead of the government, regarding the militants as more sympathetic to their political grievances.

Ali, the security analyst, blamed poor leadership for the apparent surrender. “This doesn’t show a lack of capability at the lower level of the (Afghan National Army); it shows a lack of capability at the leadership level.”

Ali’s criticism echoed remarks frequently made by U.S. and NATO officials, who blame Afghan leadership “at the lowest levels” for their inability to supply, equip and inform their subordinates.

Speaking in Kabul earlier this month, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, said poor leadership was one of the main contributors to the high number of casualties currently being suffered by Afghan forces.

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan would not comment on the Uruzgan incident but has repeatedly commended Afghan forces for being better able to fend off Taliban attacks this year than last year, the first year they were solely responsible for the country’s security after international forces switched from combat operations to a predominantly advisory role.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Afghan forces were fully capable of taking charge of the security situation in Afghanistan.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @PhillipWellman
 

In a December, 2013 file photo, flags fly on top of homes in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, signaling that Afghan National Security Forces have cleared the area of insurgents and weapons during Operation Chamtoo.
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