A key district in Afghanistan's Helmand province that was taken by insurgents last year is now back under Afghan army control, U.S. Marines deployed to Helmand announced Monday.
Nawa district, just west of Helmand's capital city and regional police headquarters, Lashkar Gah, was overrun by the Taliban last August, according to multiple media reports. The loss dealt a blow to hard-pressed Afghan National Army forces and raised questions about whether they would be able to maintain control of any part of Helmand. With Nawa in enemy hands, civilian aircraft were unable to land at Bost, the airfield outside of Lashkar Gah, and the security of the city, a civilian population center, was in greater jeopardy.
But during a two-day operation that included airstrikes from U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcons and AH-64 Apache helicopters, Afghan troops successfully wrested control of the district from the occupiers, reclaiming the district center earlier Monday, according to the release.
"The goal of this operation was to clear the Nawa district from the enemies, from the Taliban," Col. Zahirgul Moqbal, commanding officer of the Afghan Border Police, said in a statement. "[Overall, our goal was] to retake the district from the Taliban."
The Afghan army's assault on Nawa, called Operation Maiwand Four, also involved surveillance from ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles owned by the ANA and other coalition unmanned systems, according to the release.
The F-16s and Apaches "set conditions, conducted air strikes and covered the flanks of the maneuver elements to decrease the amount of friction felt by the ground forces and allowed freedom of maneuver," the release stated.
The offensive involved multiple air strikes and bravery from the troops on the ground, who disabled more than 100 improvised explosive devices and maneuvered under fire to retake the Nawa district center, officials said.
In April, about 300 Marines from 2nd Marine Division out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina deployed to Helmand province as an advisory element known as Task Force Southwest to assist local Afghan National Army units in their fight to hold the region. Col. Matthew Reid, deputy commander of the task force, said in a statement that Operation Maiwand Four highlighted leadership and determination from Afghan troops.
"So far during this operation we have seen some significant gains in leadership and maneuver from the Ministry of Interior forces, particularly the Afghan Border and National Police," Reid said. "The vast majority of the ABP officers are from Helmand, many from Nawa, and they are aggressively fighting to clear insurgents from Nawa district."
But the greatest difficulties may still be ahead for the Afghan forces. In a New York Times report published July 14, Afghan Army Corps Operations Chief Lt. Col. Abdul Latif raised concerns about whether Afghan National Security Forces would be able to keep control of Nawa if they retook it.
"It is easy for us to take Nawa, but difficult to hold," Latif said in the story. The biggest challenge, he noted, was the scarcity of manpower. He estimated district security would require 300 police, but said that kind of manpower was not available. The report also noted that most forces in Helmand are not local to the area, but come in from the north and east.
According to the news release, Afghan National Security Forces plan to maintain control by setting up security checkpoints throughout Nawa's district center and on the road to Lashkar Gah.
"It was a very successful operation in Helmand," Moqbal said of Maiwand Four in a statement. "Defeating the enemy in Nawa means defeating the enemy in Helmand."