Key Afghan City in Danger of Falling to the Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan – A major city in southern Afghanistan was at risk of falling to the Taliban on Saturday as their fighters marched towards its center despite concerted US and Afghan airstrikes in recent days.
Reports from Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, a province where the Taliban already controlled much of the territory before its recent offensive, was disastrous: promised government reinforcements had not yet arrived, people were fleeing their homes and a city hospital had been bombed.
“We are just waiting for the Taliban to arrive – there is no expectation that the government will be able to protect the city any more,” said Mohammadullah Barak, a resident.
What comes next to Lashkar Gah is anything but certain – the city has been on the verge of a Taliban takeover for more than a decade. But if the insurgent group seizes the city this time, it will be the first provincial capital to fall into the hands of the Taliban since 2016.
The worsening situation in Lashkar Gah is a more acute version of what is happening in cities across the country after the Taliban took about half of the nearly 400 Afghan districts since US and international forces began withdrawing of the country in May.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured – the highest number recorded for the May-June period since the United Nations began monitoring these victims in 2009. At least 100,000 more have been displaced from their homes.
On Saturday, fighting between insurgent and government forces around the town of Herat, a traditionally safe area in the west of the country, moved dangerously close to its outskirts. Many shops were closed on Saturday and Herat airport remained closed to civilian travel for a third day. On Friday, a UN compound was attacked and one of its guards was killed.
Taliban fighters also remained holed up in neighborhoods in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, in the south of the country. In the town of Kunduz, an economic hub on the border with Tajikistan, efforts to root out the Taliban now garrisoned within its walls have stalled.
The government’s response to recent insurgent victories has been piecemeal. Afghan forces have recaptured some districts, but the Afghan Air Force and its commandos – who have been deployed to hold the territory that remains as regular army and police units retreat, surrender or refuse to fight – are exhausted.
In place of the security forces, the government has once again turned to local militias to fill in the gaps, a move reminiscent of the chaotic and ethnically divided civil war of the 1990s that many Afghans now fear will return.
In Lashkar Gah, an Afghan military officer said government forces had been asking for reinforcements for days without success and called the situation dire. Saturday afternoon, he said, they were promised more strength but they had not yet arrived.
In May, Afghan and US airstrikes repelled an attack on the city, and a few dedicated Afghan army units occupied as much territory as they could after the local police fled.
This time around, there is less US air support, and Afghan defense officials are frantically trying to bolster besieged cities to block the Taliban’s advance.
In an effort to break the siege, Afghan planes bombed Taliban positions in Lashkar Gah neighborhoods on Friday evening, a tactic that almost always claims civilian lives when carried out in populated areas. The emergency hospital, one of the city’s main surgical centers, reported on social networks Saturday it was full.
Attaullah Afghan, head of the Helmand Provincial Council, said the Afghan Air Force shelled a private hospital in the city after the Taliban took refuge there, killing one civilian and injuring two others. Several Taliban fighters were also killed in the strike, he said.
“Only the center of the city is free from the Taliban,” said Abdul Halim, a resident. “The city is locked and surrounded by the Taliban on all four fronts. “
Mr Halim said the presence of US planes, as part of a muted bombing campaign launched by the US military earlier this month to slow the advance of the Taliban and boost the morale of Afghan security forces , did not do much to stop the fighting during the day.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Mr. Halim said.
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar. Asadulah Timory contributed from Herat.
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