KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. troops are increasingly being pulled back into battle to aid overstretched Afghan forces, most recently in the southern province of Helmand where an assertive Taliban is threatening to take over an area where hundreds of Americans have died.
Taliban insurgents are pressing toward Helmand's provincial capital, raising fears of a repeat of the capture of Kunduz in the north at the end of September. U.S. special operations troops aided Afghan forces in the two-week battle to retake Kunduz.
As in Kunduz, U.S. special operators are providing help on the ground. Their role in both instances is muddying the definition of a "noncombat" mission at a time when Afghanistan is seeing one of the highest levels of violence since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
The latest operations by the Taliban in Helmand began almost simultaneously with the fall of Kunduz and appear to be part of a more aggressive campaign by the guerrilla group, which in years past largely melted away to Pakistani safe havens as the weather turned cold and mountain passes became blocked by snow, leading to a lull in fighting over the winter months.
Col. Michael Lawhorn, spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan, confirmed in a phone interview that there are American special operations troops working with their Afghan counterparts in Helmand, though he said no American troops are permanently based in the province. The New York Times earlier this week first reported the commitment of U.S. troops and air power to the battle in Helmand.
Local officials confirmed to Stars and Stripes on Monday that Taliban militants are entrenched just 5 miles from the center of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a city of some 200,000 people.
But whereas the Taliban were pushed out relatively quickly after capturing Kunduz -- a city in an area that has seen comparatively little Taliban support during the war -- they have a much deeper support network in Helmand, which could allow them to hold Lashkar Gah, said Theo Farrell, professor of war studies at King's College, London, and an expert on the Afghan conflict.
If that were to happen, he said, it has the potential to deal a crippling blow to the morale of the Afghan security forces and bring fears of a Taliban takeover of the south.
"When you compare Helmand and Kunduz, the thing that's worrying is that insurgents have a very good chance of taking the capital [of Helmand] but, unlike Kunduz, it's going to be very hard for the army to take it back," Farrell said. "The importance is probably symbolic more than anything else, but symbolically it's incredibly important."
That symbolism is certainly not lost on the coalition, either: nearly 1,000 international troops have been killed in Helmand since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, making it by far the deadliest province during the war. And though Helmand holds just a tiny fraction of the Afghan population, it is the center of Afghanistan's thriving opium trade, which is a major driver of both the country's insurgency and government corruption.
"We haven't hid the fact that Helmand is a contested area," Lawhorn said.
Ali Akbar Qasimi, a member of the Afghan Parliament's Defense Affairs Commission, said that without the aid of U.S. special operations forces, the Taliban would have already captured Helmand's capital. He said the Taliban's capture of many rural districts has given them safe havens inside Afghanistan from which they more easily maneuver fighters and weaponry to keep up pressure on Afghan forces throughout the winter.
"The Afghan Security Forces have done what they could, but the main reason for their failure is they don't have enough resources or equipment to defend the country," Qasimi said.
That lack of resources has been compounded by the phenomenon of ghost troops -- fictitious soldiers and police created by Afghan officers as a way to skim their salaries. That means the actual size of the Afghan National Security Forces may be much smaller than the 350,000 number often cited, said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network.
"When commanders take money for fighters who don't exist, it's hard for them to ask for more soldiers," he said.
Qasimi's claim mirrors an assertion by a midlevel Taliban commander reached by phone in Helmand province, who said the removal of most international air and surveillance assets from Helmand and the insurgents' capture of several districts have made it easier for fighters to move weapons around the province.
The commander, who asked not to be named because he was discussing operations, said his orders from Taliban leadership are to target more district centers and put pressure on Lashkar Gah in the hopes of overrunning it, as insurgents had done in Kunduz.
"We are told to try to capture the capital town in every province," he said.
Lawhorn downplayed the effectiveness of Taliban tactics, pointing out that even in Kunduz, Afghan troops were able to take back the city. In recent months, the Taliban have overrun several district centers, but were usually chased out again by government reinforcements, though the insurgents control swathes of rural territory.
Unlike other guerrilla movements in recent history, they have never been able to create a "liberated territory" or set up a rival national administration there.
"The Taliban has made no strategic gains -- they don't hold anything past a couple days," Lawhorn said.
Tens of thousands of Helmand residents have already fled fighting in the province, many ending up in Kabul, and those who remain are increasingly pessimistic. Mohammad Aliyas Dayee, a longtime Helmand journalist, said he and other Lashkar Gah residents with the means have made plans to escape if the Taliban make it to the center of the city.
"I'm not very happy with the future (outlook)," he said. "It's a dark future."
There are roughly 10,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, though most were initially to have been withdrawn by now. Some are assigned to the NATO-led Resolute Support "train, advise and assist" mission. Others, mostly special forces, conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and similar groups.
The distinction between "assistance" and combat has always been tricky. The declaration of the end of combat for foreign troops last year was always more semantics than reality, Ruttig said.
"I think they have never really stayed out of the fight," he said. "Reality is coming back -- withdrawal (of international forces) has been decided regardless of what the situation on the ground was, and now the situation on the ground demands more support."
The current U.S. troop strength is now scheduled to remain at least until the end of 2016, and President Barack Obama, who campaigned on a platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has twice extended the timetable for all U.S. troops to withdraw.
American troops still sometimes go out on patrols, but those are now described as defensive and therefore outside of a combat role. Still, 21 foreign troops, including 16 Americans, have died in connection with the military mission in Afghanistan this year, according to iCasualties.org.
When asked last week by Stars and Stripes about the changing definition of America's role in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen., Joseph Dunford, replied: "I still call it a war." But he added: "What we've shifted away from is a large presence of U.S. combat forces fighting that war."
Lawhorn said he couldn't say for sure whether the special operators deployed to Helmand would fall under Resolute Support or the counterterrorism mission. He stressed that such small-scale, temporary deployments are not a harbinger of re-escalation of U.S. military operations in the country.
"The situation isn't going to change here to where you're going to see large formations of combat troops on the battlefield," Lawhorn said.
The deep unpopularity of the war in the U.S. and Europe is likely to keep large numbers of regular troops off the battlefield, but that doesn't change the reality of the mission for the Americans currently in Helmand, Farrell said.
"We know the NATO forces are on the ground, the special forces are there as Joint Tactical Air Controllers, and I would be surprised if they're not engaged in combat," he said, adding that what's happening in Helmand could lead NATO to keep special operations units in regional hubs longer than originally planned.
Ruttig said Afghan troops would continue to need U.S. assistance, but he cautioned that any fighting right now was little more than a way to uphold the bloody status quo until the Afghan government and Taliban figure out a long-sought peace deal.
"Even with 140,000 troops, the West was not able to defeat the Taliban, so the solution is not on the military side."
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report