The US has begun launching air strikes in Helmand in support of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that has resulted in killing of a key Taliban commander alongside dozens of militants. Taliban claim to have captured nearly the entire district of Sangin, hence tightening their grip on Helmand province. Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid has stated that insurgents are in control of the entire district. Current turmoil in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and US forces in Afghanistan over the past decade, underscores fragility of security situation in Afghanistan.

“Our men are hungry and thirsty,” Abdul Wahab, a local police commander in Sangin, told AFP, adding that dozens of his comrades had been killed and critically wounded. The ongoing war in Helmand is seen as the epicentre of the expanding insurgency, following a string of military victories for the Taliban.

Earlier Afghan government had responded to the request of besieged garrison and rushed reinforcements to Helmand after Taliban captured large swathes of strategic district prompting the first British troop deployment in 14 months. As fighting continued, more and more Afghan army and police contingents kept pouring in to help security forces pinned down for days in the besieged area. In an army base in the embattled district, an Afghan soldier described a dire situation, saying that a handful of Afghan troops inside were fighting to the last, trying to keep the Taliban out.

Afghan defence minister, Masoom Stanekzai appealed for stepped-up NATO assistance and military support. Stanekzai said that country’s overstretched security forces needed the international military coalition’s help, especially air support, which would help reduce casualties.

Taliban, have been besieging the district for days and have almost completely over-run the district. Militants broke through the frontlines of Sangin district after days of pitched clashes with besieged Afghan forces. They began advancing on the district centre after storming government buildings, sending civilians fleeing as fears grew that the entire province was on the verge of falling to the insurgents. As a part of distress mitigation effort, food and ammunition were air-dropped to entrapped Afghan forces. Deputy Helmand governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar told AFP: “I am confident that we will not lose Sangin,” just days after he warned that “Helmand was teetering on the brink”.

Fighting in Helmand has picked up pace following a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency. Twelve out of Helmand´s 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by the Taliban insurgents. Taliban recently overran Babaji, a suburb of Lashkar Gah, throwing up concern that the provincial capital could also fall. A small contingent of British troops arrived in Camp Shorabak in Helmand to assist Afghan forces in an “advisory role”. NATO will, in all probability, retrieve the captured territory in a matter of a week or so, once again underlining the inadequacy of ANSF in the context of their capacity of handling the combat operations independently.

Holding of territory is not significant for Taliban. Their approach of strategic advance followed by tactical retreat is good enough to keep them in the news and radiate a sense of perpetual insecurity all over the country. This year Taliban have not ended their fighting season with the onset of winters. They continue to overrun urban centres. Through this show of force they want to make their presence felt while wheeling dealing for resumption of Murree process is picking up momentum.

During his visit to Kabul, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has discussed modalities for jump starting the stalled peace talks with the Afghan leadership. In the first week of January, government representatives of Afghanistan, China, United States and Pakistan will meet to discuss ‘What, How and Where’ of these negotiations. The first round was held in Murree. Second round was scuttled by a news leak about Mullah Omar’s death. Ever since, various Taliban factions are locked in internal struggle for leadership. Current Taliban leader Mullah Mansour Akhtar is critically injured as a result of intra-Taliban fighting.

Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, while welcoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s support for Afghanistan’s National Unity Government in the recent Heart of Asia conference, said such statements ‘which reaffirm Afghanistan’s sovereignty’ would be regarded as a confidence-building step within Afghan political circles. He added that the Afghan government’s commitment to the reconciliation process should also be recognised to neutralise those opposed to talks. He is hopeful that upcoming visit of General Raheel Sharif would result in some concrete counterterrorism steps to address mutual security challenges.

In the context of use of Afghan territory as launching pad for conducting terrorist activities in Pakistan, an overt acknowledgment about Mullah Fazullah’s presence in Afghanistan came from Chief Executive Afghanistan Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s statement that Mullah has survived several operations by Afghan security forces in recent months. He was optimistic that “he will not evade us forever.” Evasive Mullah FM (radio) has been in hiding in eastern Afghanistan after he and his loyalists were routed in a military operation “Rah-e- Rast” (Right Path) in Swat/Malakand areas in 2009. Ever since, he has been guiding terrorist activities in Pakistan from his hideouts in Afghanistan. Dr Abdullah said, “It is not our policy to harbour any terrorist attacks against any country. We’re ready to take risks but then we also expect Pakistan to stand by us for the sake of the greater good”. “The gravity of the situation is such that we should think and act differently.” he added.

Dr Abdullah thinks that the Taliban have been weakened by divisions and thus Kabul was ready to start talks with ‘reconcilable’ leaders of the movement. The Afghan chief executive seemed satisfied with the recent assurances from Pakistani leaders on working for peace and stability in Afghanistan. “There is recognition of change in (the actions by) Pakistan at the highest level in Afghanistan,” he said. He stated that perception of Pakistan at the public level has not yet changed. “It will take time for common Afghans to be on-board. They have doubts which need to be removed through actions,” he added. At the same time the Afghan leader recognised the concerns of Pakistani leaders about Afghanistan. “We understand that Pakistan has legitimate concerns but we too have legitimate concerns. No doubt, there is urgency of dealing with the situation and we are clear it will take time…Afghanistan does not interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries and hopes its neighbours will not interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs.” he added.

At bilateral level, Pakistan and Afghanistan should devise a formal mechanism to coordinate security operations on both sides of the border and at the same time establish hotlines and develop essential communication system for intelligence sharing. There is also an urgent need to put in place a strong, mutually coordinated border management mechanism. Pakistan needs to re-evaluate Afghan Transit Trade Agreement in light of upcoming China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan should provide liberal trade facilitation through CPEC and engage Afghanistan in this context.

As much touted about political, economic and military transitions of Afghanistan are widely off the mark, Afghanistan’s “decade of opportunities” may turn out as decade of nightmares. Hence, there is a need and urgency for bold course correction. Pakistan needs to reassess the situation and take essential measure for safeguarding its interests while factoring in short to medium term instability in Afghanistan.

Moreover, there is a need to continue consolidating the fragile gains of Zarb-e Azb while remembering that the extremist fighters who have crossed over to Afghanistan need to be kept at bay, lest they once again become a real time threat. Moreover, pace must be maintained with regard to implementation of National Action Plan in all effected urban centres. This effort has begun to stall with politicisation of the process, an immediate political course correction is in order before unravelling takes over.