U.S. Launches Airstrikes In Support Of Afghan Operation In Sangin
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Afghanistan, government forces are battling the Taliban for control of the Sangin district in Helmand Province. The area is considered a Taliban stronghold, and it's been one of the deadliest places for U.S. Marines. Sune Engel Rasmussen is in Kabul, where he covers Afghanistan for The Guardian newspaper, and I asked him to describe the current conditions in Sangin.
SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN: Fighting has gone back and forth, and on Wednesday night local time, the Taliban managed to seize control of the government compound for four to five hours. But from what I hear, the government's now back in control after receiving reinforcements.
SIEGEL: Now, this is an area that has passed in and out of Taliban control. It's where some of the fiercest fighting took place during the coalition campaign in Afghanistan. What is the strategic importance of the district?
RASMUSSEN: Sangin is actually not as strategically important as many people make it out to be. It is important in the sense that it's on the drug-trafficking route. It's also on the route where the Taliban can transport arms and men. But I think the reason we hear a lot about Sangin at the moment is because it has enormous symbolic value and enormous emotional value for especially the U.K. but also the U.S. and some other European countries who were there.
SIEGEL: The U.S. says it carried out two airstrikes against the Taliban in Sangin. Are U.S. or NATO forces doing anything else to support Afghan government forces in that area?
RASMUSSEN: Yeah. They're based at a former British base down in Helmand where they're doing their train, advise and assist mission, as it's called. In short, that means that they're training Afghan Security Forces, but in particular, in Helmand, they're assisting them and advising them on beating back the Taliban.
And as far as I've been told from NATO, they are not in Sangin at the moment. There are special forces from both the U.K. and the U.S. in Helmand Province, assisting the Afghan forces. Now, it's a little bit more unclear what the U.S. soldiers who are not a part of NATO's mission are doing in Helmand 'cause there are definitely some units that are on a counterterrorism mission. I haven't gotten any reports that they are actually in Sangin, but I also haven't been able to get any confirmation from the U.S. forces about what they're actually doing there.
SIEGEL: The Taliban push in Sangin is part of a larger offensive. How successful have the Taliban been in recent months?
RASMUSSEN: The Taliban have opened up fronts across the country, both in the South and the East, which are the Taliban's normal strongholds, but also in the North and in the West, which are - is quite unusual, actually. And a couple of months ago, they managed to seize the northern city of Kunduz, which came as a shock to many here, including the government. So the Taliban now are militarily stronger than have been in a very long time.
But at the same time, the Taliban are divided internally. They've gone through a major leadership crisis. They're still in a leadership crisis after the announcement of the death of their leader and founder, Mullah Omar, back in July. And this fighting should also be seen in that light. This is a chance for the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, to consolidate his authority.
SIEGEL: From what you say, it sounds that nearly a year after NATO forces officially ended the combat mission in Afghanistan, that the conflict in that country is not much closer to resolution.
RASMUSSEN: No, not at all, actually. And I think the past six months where the Taliban have really gained territory, even though they haven't managed to hold any important districts - this shows that the Taliban are still able to make the countryside, especially, very insecure. They're still able to conduct attacks in the middle of Kabul, as we saw only a little over a week ago when they attacked the Spanish Embassy in Kabul. And peace talks are now a pretty distant prospect. And with the Taliban's strength that we see now, I think the only solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is a political solution.
SIEGEL: Sune Engel Rasmussen covers Afghanistan for The Guardian. He spoke with us from Kabul. Thanks so much.
RASMUSSEN: You're welcome.