KABUL: A motorcycle-riding Taliban suicide bomber killed six US soldiers near Kabul Monday, in a brazen attack as the resurgent militant group battled to seize a key southern district in Afghanistan’s opium-growing heartland.
The bombing during a joint patrol with Afghan forces near Bagram, the largest US military base in Afghanistan, marks one of the deadliest attacks on foreign troops in the country this year.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, which underscores a worsening security situation a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan.
“It is with deep regret that I learned today that six US service members died in Afghanistan Monday,” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement, adding that three others were wounded, including an American contractor.
“It serves as a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan.”
The attack came as Taliban insurgents in Helmand were closing in on the strategic district of Sangin, tightening their grip on the volatile southern province.
Local residents reported crippling food shortages in the district, long seen as a hornet’s nest of insurgent activity, after the Taliban began storming government buildings on Sunday.
“The Taliban have captured the police headquarters, the governor’s office as well as the intelligence agency building in Sangin,” deputy Helmand governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar told AFP.
“Fighting is escalating in the district,” he said, claiming the number of soldiers killed in clashes is “unbelievably high.”
Helmand under threat
Rasoolyar’s comments come a day after he posted a desperate plea on Facebook to President Ashraf Ghani, warning the entire province was at risk of falling to the Taliban.
The government in Kabul said reinforcements had been dispatched to Sangin, while denying claims of large casualties and rejecting assertions that the district was at risk of being captured.
But trapped residents told AFP that insurgents had heavily mined roads to Sangin and exhausted soldiers besieged in government buildings were begging for food rations.
The grim assessment bore striking similarities to the security situation that led to the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz in September — the biggest Taliban victory in 14 years of war.
The fall of Helmand would deal another stinging blow to Afghan forces, who have struggled to rein in the ascendant insurgency without the full backing of NATO forces.
Sangin, a strategically important district at the center of Afghanistan’s lucrative opium trade, has been the scene of fierce fighting for years between the Taliban and NATO forces.
British troops fought deadly battles in Sangin for four years to little effect, before US marines replaced them in late 2010 and finally pulled out themselves last year.
“The Taliban onslaught in Sangin is not just a military gain but also a huge propaganda score for the insurgents,” Kabul-based political analyst Haroon Mir told AFP.
“The British and Americans bled to defend Sangin district and now Afghan forces are suffering the same fate.”
Lashkar Gah at risk?
All but two of Helmand’s 14 districts are effectively controlled or heavily contested by Taliban insurgents, officials said.
Insurgents also recently overran Babaji, a suburb of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, fuelling concern that the city could fall to the insurgents.
Highlighting the gravity of the situation, US Special Forces have been sent to Helmand in recent weeks to assist Afghan forces, a senior Western official told AFP without offering details.
This month marks a year since the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations assisting in training local forces.
President Barack Obama in October announced that thousands of US troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, backpedaling on previous plans to reduce the force and acknowledging that Afghan forces are not ready to stand alone.
The latest unrest came as the UN envoy to Afghanistan warned that the country would need to prove itself worthy of international support in the coming year, with international resources stretched to the limit amid a series of humanitarian crises.
“It is vital that the national unity government demonstrates increasingly its effectiveness, not only to the Afghan people but also donors on whom it is largely dependent,” Nicholas Haysom said in a briefing to the UN Security Council.