Afghan forces are fighting to prevent a first provincial city from falling to the Taliban following weekend offensives by insurgents in urban centers in a large escalation of fighting.
Taliban fighters stormed at least three provincial capitals overnight, Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat, after a weekend of heavy fighting that caused thousands of civilians to flee from the advancing militants.
Fighting broke out in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, where the Taliban launched coordinated attacks on the city center and its prison hours after the government announced the deployment of hundreds of commandos to the area.
Fighting has intensified since early May, and the insurgents capitalized on the final stages of the withdrawal of foreign forces led by the United States after nearly 20 years.
“Afghan forces on the ground and through air strikes repelled the attack,” the army in Helmand said of the assault on Lashkar Gah.
One resident, Hawa Malalai, warned of a growing crisis in the city. “There are fights, power outages, sick people in the hospital, the telecommunications networks are down. There are no drugs and pharmacies are closed. “
Helmand was for years the centerpiece of the American and British military campaign in Afghanistan, only for it to sink further into instability.
The province was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between foreign forces and the Taliban over the years, as tens of thousands of troops poured in for the surge of former US President Barack Obama.
The vast poppy fields in the provinces provide most of the opium for the international heroin trade, making it a lucrative source of taxes and cash for the Taliban’s war chest.
The loss of the capital of Helmand would be a massive strategic and psychological blow to the government, which vowed to defend the provincial capitals at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
Fighting also broke out in some districts of Kandahar, the former stronghold of the insurgents, and on the outskirts of the provincial capital.
Kandahar airport was attacked during the night of Sunday, when the Taliban fired rockets that damaged the runway, causing the suspension of flights for several hours. The facility is vital to maintaining the logistics and air support necessary to prevent the Taliban from invading the city, while also providing air cover for large swaths of southern Afghanistan, including nearby Lashkar Gah.
In the west, hundreds of commandos were also defending Herat after days of fierce fighting.
“The threat is high in these three provinces … but we are determined to repel their attacks,” Afghan security forces spokesman Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters on Sunday, adding that it was an “emergency situation. “.
The capture of any major urban center by the Taliban would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns that the army is unable to resist.
“If Afghan cities fall … the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will be remembered as one of the most notable strategic mistakes in US foreign policy,” Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani told AFP. .
It would show that Washington “abandoned the most pro-American government in the region to the radical Islamists who believe in turning everything that has been built in the last two decades to rubble.”
Kabul has repeatedly dismissed the militants’ steady gains over the summer as lacking strategic value, but has largely failed to reverse its momentum.
The Taliban have seized Afghan cities in the past, but only briefly held them.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism