KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Afghan military has suffered its worst loss of the year in southern Afghanistan, with at least 40 security force members killed in a Taliban attack this past week, but senior officials had still not released a death toll two days later, according to residents and functionaries from the area who spoke on Sunday.
The national authorities and those at the provincial level in Helmand confirmed that an attack occurred in Sangin District, one of the most heavily contested areas in the country, on Friday night, but they either refused to give any details or claimed not to have any as of Sunday.
It was yet another indication that the Taliban were continuing to attack Afghan government forces aggressively even as they have entered peace negotiations on an American withdrawal from the country, with another round of talks expected in Qatar this month.
Some estimates put the number of security forces killed in Sangin late Friday and early Saturday at 65, including 48 Afghan National Army soldiers, 10 pro-government militia fighters and seven police officers, with 43 others wounded, according to Mohammed Hashim Alokozai, an Afghan senator and member of the Defense Committee in Parliament, who is from Sangin.
“The government is trying to keep it secret, but this is what has happened in just a single attack in Sangin District,” Mr. Alokozai said. He said he was in touch by phone with residents and officials there.
Spokesmen for the governor of Helmand Province and for the army’s 215th Corps, which is in charge of security in the area, said they were still gathering information about Friday’s attacks.
In 2017, Afghan and American military authorities began to keep battlefield death tolls secret, and senior Afghan officials issued orders that provincial, district and military functionaries should not release casualty information, but should refer queries to the central government in Kabul, the capital. Afghan soldiers and police officers are dying in record numbers, and the casualties among Afghan forces have been increasing every year.
In Kabul, Qais Mangal, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, confirmed the Taliban attacks in Sangin, but said he did not have further information. “Both sides suffered casualties,” he said.
The assaults were carried out on Friday evening on several targets in Sangin, according to Hajji Dawoud Shah, head of the District Council there. “The Taliban carried out deadly attacks on security outposts,” he said. “At least 34 soldiers and seven police officers were killed in the fighting. Several outposts were captured and looted by insurgents.”
Mira Jan Akka, a tribal elder from Sangin, gave a similar narrative, saying that the Taliban had targeted three outposts belonging to army, police and pro-government militia members, all recently installed after a military operation in the area. “All three posts were wiped out by the Taliban, none of the forces in them survived,” he said.
“We do not know the exact casualty figures, because the government is not sharing information,” Mr. Akka added.
Sangin was bitterly fought over by the Taliban when British forces held it, and later when the American Marines took over; for both countries, more soldiers were killed in the district than anywhere else in Afghanistan. When the Marines handed over responsibility for Sangin to the Afghans, similarly high casualties resulted. The insurgents now hold most of the territory there, with the government holed up in the district seat and on bases.
After a yearlong campaign, the Taliban took over the government and administrative center of Sangin in 2017, in what was viewed at the time as an important symbolic victory for the insurgents. The government responded by moving the district capital buildings to a new area, and in that way claimed to have retained control of the district.
Omar Zwak, spokesman for the governor of Helmand, said on Sunday, “There are casualties to our forces but we have sent an investigation team to find out more, and also deployed more security forces to secure the situation.”
Mr. Alokozai, the senator, and other local officials said it was not credible that the government had no details on a loss of such a scale, the worst in southern Afghanistan this year.
Abdul Hai Akhundzada, a member of Parliament from Helmand, said that the Taliban attack on security outposts in Sangin had killed more than 60 security forces.
“The government is trying to hide the fact from the people; they are trying to hide their weakness and incompetence,” he said.
It was the second large-scale assault in the country in less than a month. On March 11, Taliban fighters wiped out an entire Afghan National Army company of more than 50 soldiers in the northwestern province of Badghis, close to the country’s border with Turkmenistan. At least 16 soldiers were killed and 40 others taken prisoner in the initial attack, with up to 150 troops from other units eventually surrendering to the insurgents, too.
At least 45 pro-government forces and 12 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week. In many cases, senior officials denied detailed knowledge of the attacks — reflecting a pattern of official responses over recent months. The deadliest attack last week took place in Faryab Province, where a Taliban unit hit a military base and security outposts in the village of Arkalik last Sunday, killing 22 Afghan security officers.
Orignially published in NYT.