Overstretched Afghan forces are pulling back from violent southern districts without a fight, ceding key territory to the resurgent Taliban as part of an unprecedented “strategic retreat” that has stoked fears Afghan government control is slipping.
Beset by record casualties, desertions and troop shortages, Afghan troops have abandoned outposts in parts of central Uruzgan province, extending a withdrawal that began last month.
They have already pulled out of Musa Qala and Nowzad districts in neighboring Helmand, bastions that foreign troops struggled for years to defend as the opium-rich region teeters on the brink of collapse.
The retreat has triggered fevered speculation about possible government backroom deals with the Taliban at a time when international efforts are growing to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.
“Once you start pulling out troops and surrendering hard-won territory, you are basically admitting that the Taliban have won,” said Mohammad Ismail, a tribal elder from Musa Qala who fled the area after government troops pulled out. “This is a betrayal to all those who have sacrificed their lives to defend these areas over 15 years.”
The withdrawal, which comes as Afghan forces struggle to fight off the increasingly bloody insurgency, has sparked concerns that the government is fast losing control of volatile Helmland.
The Taliban effectively control or contest at least 10 of the 14 districts in Afghanistan’s biggest center for opium production, a lucrative source of insurgent funding that makes the province a hotly contested area.
Afghan commanders dismiss claims of any Taliban deal, describing the withdrawals as a “tactical” maneuver aimed at consolidating forces from isolated, hard-to-defend areas.
In related news, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the Islamic State group has been defeated in eastern Afghanistan, where it had taken over some remote districts.
Speaking at the opening of parliament yesterday, Ghani said Afghan forces had dislodged Islamic State loyalists from regions of Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan.
He said Afghanistan would be a “graveyard” for the militant group.
The Islamic State has had a presence in Afghanistan for more than a year.
Officials have said most militants calling themselves Islamic State are disaffected Taliban fighters.
Afghan forces have claimed victory following a 21-day operation in the Achin and Shinwar districts of Nangarhar, claiming at least 200 militants were killed.
A suicide bomber yesterday rammed his explosives-laden fuel truck into a security checkpoint south of Baghdad, killing at least 31 people and wounding dozens, officials said, the latest episode in an uptick in violence in the war-ravaged country.
Among the dead were 24 civilians, while the rest were security personnel. The attacker struck shortly after noon, when the checkpoint at one of the entrances to the city of Hillah was crowded with dozens of cars, a police officer said.
Up to 55 other people were wounded and more than 20 cars were damaged, he said.
A medical official confirmed the causality figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to release information.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group.
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