By Mohammad Stanekzai
Afghan government forces have pulled out of a second district in Helmand, leaving the Taliban in control of most of the northern part of the province after troops withdrew from Musa Qala district last week.
The withdrawals raise questions over the capacity of the Afghan security forces to take on the Taliban since the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 from most combat operations left them fighting largely alone.
Army and government officials said security forces had left Nawzad district, which borders Musa Qala, and would concentrate their strength on defending the area around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and the main highway between Kabul and the western city of Herat.
According to US officials, the Islamist Taliban already control or threaten around a third of Afghanistan although they have so far failed to take over any major provincial centres apart from their brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz last year.
The Taliban are seeking to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose harsh Islamic rule 15 years after they were ousted from power.
Helmand, a major centre of opium production where thousands of British and American soldiers and marines struggled to subdue the Taliban, has been slipping out of government control for months as the insurgents overrun much of the countryside outside a few district centres.
The latest move leaves security forces hanging on in the town of Sangin, north of the main Highway One as well as a number of other towns and district centres including Gereshk, which lies on the highway and Marjah, close to Lashkar Gah.