Chris Sands, Fazelminallah Qazizal — The National Jan 17, 2016
It was late at night when the Taliban launched another attack on the police, opening fire on their small hilltop outpost in Sangin district in the southern province of Helmand.
After weeks of intense fighting, the exhausted and lightly armed members of Afghanistan’s security forces knew they were about to be overrun. The insurgents were so close they could be heard talking among themselves in the heat of battle.
Convinced that he would either be killed or captured, one policeman escaped under the cover of darkness, amid farmland and orchards as mountains spanned the horizon.
The 34-year-old lay on the ground away from the makeshift walls of his outpost, held his Kalashnikov tightly to his chest, and rolled himself down the hill so the insurgents would not see him.
“We weren’t meant to be fighting them. There were other units for fighting, but they were still attacking our outpost,” he said. “They were fighting very fiercely.”
The policeman – whose name has been withheld to protect his identity – described these events to The National in Kabul, as Sangin district centre fell into the hands of the Taliban last month. Its loss was a symbolic moment in the conflict which has been raging in the country since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Notorious as a stronghold of insurgents and drug traffickers, British and American forces spent years struggling to establish control over the district before they officially ended combat operations in Helmand in October 2014.
While surrounding rural areas had long been insecure the fall of Sangin’s centre last month led to renewed questions in the UK about whether the war was worth fighting. But to Afghans who had lived and worked there, its collapse was no surprise.
For weeks they had been watching the Taliban move around confidently, and the policeman’s escape was yet another example of the often shambolic nature of the government’s defeat.
After rolling down the hill he had to walk for several minutes to his battalion’s base. But as he did so, he feared the Taliban would catch him or other policemen might mistakenly shoot him, thinking he was an insurgent.
When he finally reached safety and reported what had happened, he was assured that help was on its way.
But the support did not arrive until the morning. By then, one of his colleagues at the four-man outpost had been killed and the other two had been injured.
“After this the Taliban attacked another outpost which was stronger than ours and all the area was left to them,” the policeman said.
“We decided to leave because the police who were there to fight couldn’t resist anymore. We escaped from the Taliban and left the land to them.”
The policeman was among a battalion of police reinforcements specifically sent from Maiwand district in neighbouring Kandahar province to deal with the growing unrest in Sangin.
Deployed there in October, he was stunned by the situation he found upon his arrival. While Maiwand had been dangerous, his new posting was terrifying.
The former soldier described how the Taliban would drive around Sangin in US-made M1117 Armoured Security vehicles after having seized them from government forces.
In another sign that the Taliban moved with impunity, he said he heard reports the insurgents would use boats to move along the river that runs through Helmand.
“They were shouting at us using a military communication system and loudspeakers,” he said. “They would say: ‘Surrender to us like a unit of the army has done. We will reward you with a turban and some money and we will let you go back safely to your homes’.”
After the fall of Sangin, he and the majority of his battalion fled back to Kandahar on the advice of their commander. They made sure they had received their monthly wages before escaping to their families across the country. Eleven of the police in their battalion had to face disciplinary action for encouraging their colleagues to retreat from battle.
More than 450 British military personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and over 100 of those deaths occurred in and around Sangin, where UK forces encountered sniper fire, roadside bombs and well-coordinated insurgent ambushes.
In 2010, Britain handed over responsibility for security in Sangin to US troops, who also suffered heavy casualties before their withdrawal.
When the district was overrun last month, a small number of British military personnel were again sent to Helmand in what the UK government described as an “advisory role”.
US air strikes have also been carried out in the area after the Taliban offensive.
A tribal elder described the chaotic situation in which several districts across Helmand are under Taliban control, and predicted the entire province could fall to the insurgents by the summer.
“The government’s morale is so weak that everywhere its forces have left behind ammunition, weapons and armoured vehicles for the Taliban,” he said.
Another tribal elder, Abdul Bari Ansari, who fled Sangin to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, gave a similar account.
He said he doubted the government could regain control of Sangin, and said corrupt officials were part of the problem, pitting different tribes in the area against one another and fuelling the insurgency.
“The Taliban are making progress and have high morale,” he said. “The government is retreating.”