The top US general in Europe warned on Thursday that Russia may now be arming the Taliban, as the militant group seized the Afghan town that more than 100 British soldiers died trying to defend.
The strategic district of Sangin in Helmand province was the deadliest battlefield for UK forces in Afghanistan and 104 British troops died in the effort to keep it out of the Taliban’s hands.
But the town fell early on Thursday morning as Taliban forces continued a years-long offensive to extend their reach in southern Afghanistan.
The Afghan government said it intended to mount a counter-attack to recapture the town but it was not clear if they had the forces to immediately take it back.
The set back came as the top US general in Europe warned that Russia may now be arming the militants.
Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said Moscow appeared to an increasingly influential player in Afghanistan.
"I've seen the influence of Russia of late - increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban," he told a Senate hearing in Washington.
Gen Scaparrotti's comments come after a senior Pakistani military source told the Telegraph that Russia could be tempted to stage a Syria-style intervention in Afghanistan if Taliban and Isil strength continues to grow.
Russia has denied supporting the Taliban, saying its contacts with the group are aimed at bringing them to the negotiating table.
The fall of Sangin is the latest sign of how Afghanistan’s security forces have struggled to hold their own against the Taliban since the withdrawal of most Western forces in 2014.
Afghan troops have suffered massive casualties fighting against the Taliban and are dogged by equipment shortages and salaries that are sometimes not paid because of corruption.
An Afghan policeman reportedly killed nine of his comrades as they slept and then fled to join the Taliban early on Thursday morning. The killing, which took place in the northern province of Kunduz, is part of a spike of “insider attacks” in which Afghan forces have turned their weapons on their own side.
Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said he was not surprised to hear of Sangin’s fall given the depleted state of the Afghan security forces.
“The reality is that when we withdrew we left the Afghan security forces in a state where they were not able to do the job and defend the territory allegedly held by the Afghan government,” he told The Telegraph.
“We and the Americans should have remained in Afghanistan in much greater numbers to see them through the very dangerous transition period for longer.”
Col Kemp said that Sangin’s fall might make some British veterans of Afghanistan question if their fight had been worth it but that the town itself was not particularly symbolic for UK forces.
“When they see Afghanistan descending into chaos as it is they might well be wondering why they made those sacrifices but it’s not out of a particular attachment to Sangin,” he said.
Afghan forces are understood have fallen back to a base around six miles south, which is easier for them to defend.
British forces took charge in southern Helmand province in 2006 and lost 104 troops in Sangin, nearly a quarter of the 456 casualties Britain suffered in Afghanistan in total.
The UK handed responsibility for Sangin to the US in 2010 and it was transferred to Afghan forces in 2013. Since then US has continued to use airpower and special forces to try to keep it out of the Taliban’s hands.
Most British forces fully from Afghanistan in late 2014 but around 500 remain in the country to help train and support Afghan forces. The US has kept around 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and Donald Trump is reportedly considering deploying additional forces.
General John Nicholson Jr, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said last month that the 15-year war was at a “stalemate” and that more Western troops were need to train Afghan forces and help them push back the Taliban.