Will Helmand turn into Taliban sanctuary after British forces' withdrawal?



Having served 13 years fighting militants in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, British troops departed for home on Sunday, leaving Afghan national forces to take over the security responsibility alone in the former Taliban stronghold.

However, political experts believe that the forces' withdrawal would encourage Taliban militants to intensify activities in the already volatile Helmand province.

"Since the armed oppositions interpret the British forces withdrawal from Helmand as the defeat of occupying troops, they would further speed up their activities, "Atiqullah Omarkhil , a retired army general and political-military analyst, told Xinhua.

Notorious for growing poppies for the drug trade and ongoing militancy, Helmand has been regarded as a Taliban hotbed in militancy-plagued Afghanistan.

The British flag was lowered for the last time on Sunday at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, the third largest NATO-led forces military base after Bagram and Kandahar bases housing foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The British contingent as part of the U.S.-led military coalition in the war on terror in Afghanistan was deployed in 2001 and the Bastion Camp, constructed in 2006, had been used to house some 10,000 troops to fight Taliban and al-Qaida operatives. "All the NATO-led forces, including the British troops, have failed to evict Taliban militants from Helmand province over the past 13 years. The Taliban has fought in Helmand and other provinces in the presence of foreign troops and will continue to fight in their absence," the analyst maintained.

Taliban militants launched a massive offensive against the Sangin district of Helmand province last June, which left more than 300 people including civilians dead or injured.

While the sporadic fighting is still going on in the Sangin district, the armed militants unleashed coordinated offensive in the neighboring Naw Zad district a couple of weeks ago and the Afghan security forces have yet to overcome the challenge.

The British forces have reportedly lost 453 servicemen in the war since their deployment in Afghanistan in 2001.

Britain plans to keep some 400 servicemen in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, to train and advice the Afghan national security forces.

The Afghan government inked the Bilateral Security Agreement ( BSA) with the U.S. and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO allowing the U.S.alliance to keep some 12,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Meanwhile, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi has said that the national security forces are capable enough to fully bear the security responsibility of the country alone after the pullout of foreign forces, a notion doubted by Afghan civilians.

The strategically important Helmand province, which borders Pakistan is infamous for poppy cultivation and Taliban-led militancy wherein, according to the provincial police chief Juma Gul Hemat, hundreds of Pakistani Taliban are involved in the ongoing militancy there alongside Afghan insurgents.

"Diminishing Taliban insurgents or their eviction from a district is not an easy task, if it were, the NATO-led forces might have already ensured security across the Helmand province," the Omarkhil observed.

Nevertheless, observers are of the view that stabilizing security in Helmand in the wake of British forces withdrawal could be a crucial test of the Afghan government's ability to curb militancy or risk seeing it become a Taliban hub.