Fighting rages in three Afghan cities as Taliban launches sustained assault

‘People want to leave, but don’t know where they can go. We are surrounded, there is fighting everywhere’

The city at the centre of Britain’s long mission in Afghanistan is in danger of falling to the Taliban as Islamist fighters target key urban centres after capturing swathes of the countryside.

Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is one of three cities under sustained assault by insurgents despite American air strikes and attempted counter-attacks by Afghan government forces.

Taliban fighters are said to be just a few hundred yards from the governor’s office and residence, a clinic has been bombed and large numbers of homes destroyed.

Thousands of residents who fled to the city from surrounding villages and towns are now taking refuge in a steadily constricting number of neighbourhoods amid fierce clashes.

Military reinforcements, desperately needed for days, only began to arrive on Saturday evening, say local Afghan government commanders.

The problems of moving troops into combat zones have been acutely exacerbated by the withdrawal of western air support after the US president, Joe Biden, announced the pull-out of US forces.

The Helmandi capital had faced repeated attacks from the insurgents over the years. But locals say the situation this time seems more dire than ever, with the Taliban seemingly determined to take control.

“They are in the city centre and it seems only a matter of time before they take over. They seem more organised than before and they keep going forward despite bombing by planes”, said Walid Mir Mohammed, a 48 year old businessman.

“People want to leave, but they do not know where they can go. We are surrounded, there is fighting everywhere, everyone is very frightened, a lot of the houses have been taken over by the Taliban so they are getting damaged by all the shooting that is going on.”

Taliban takeover of districts has often been followed by retribution. Two men were publicly hanged in a town near Lashkar Gah. Those who had worked for the British, American and other Western forces in any capacity and still remained in Lashkar Gah were extremely worried about what may happen to them, said Mr Mir Mohammed.

Meanwhile, attempts by the insurgents to capture Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, have continued with firefights inside the city.

More than 150,000 people have fled to the centre after widespread destruction in the surrounding countryside.

Taking over Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, would be a huge symbolic as well as strategic victory for the Talibs. Gaining possession of it, along with Lashkar Gah, would provide a grip on the southern Pashtun heartland which the Afghan government is likely to find difficult to loosen.

Taliban tactics since they began the current campaign, as international forces left, have not, however, focused purely on the south. There have been concerted attempts to take over territories in the north and the west, the home areas of their traditional Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara adversaries in what was the Northern Alliance. Kabul, the capital, is being increasingly locked in from all sides.

The third besieged city – Herat, in the west – is under assault with fighting in five districts, including the area where the airport is based. Government forces have taken back some areas, but the UN compound in the city came under fire on Friday, killing a guard.

Ismail Khan, the former governor of the province and a renowned mujaheddin commander against the Russians, has mobilised hundreds of tribal militia and called on residents to arm themselves and start a “popular uprising” against the insurgents.

What is happening in Helmand will be particularly poignant for the British military with grave disquiet among many about the hasty withdrawal by the US-led forces, including the UK contingent.

Many of the towns and military bases where British and American soldiers fought, and hundreds were killed and injured, have now been taken over by the Taliban. Afghan forces are holding on in some of the others, under siege from the insurgents. Western forces, too, often found themselves on the defensive, with the Talibs dominating the surrounding areas, but they could count on much more effective military help, including much more accurate air support.

In Lashkar Gah, with the insurgents advancing, Afghan government warplanes carried out a series of raids on Friday and Saturday. A privately owned hospital was hit by the strikes, killing one person and injuring three others.

Officials claimed the Taliban moved into the building. But Mohammed Din Narwhal, a doctor who owned the Afghan Ariana Hospital, denied that. “I was told that the military was given wrong information by the defence ministry,” he said.

There were claims, however, that a private clinic that Talibs had taken over was bombed. Attulah Afghan, the head of the Helmand Provincial Council, said casualties included civilians as well as Taliban fighters.

Three months ago, sustained US airstrikes turned back a Taliban assault to the north and west of the city. Since then, however, western air support has been largely “over the horizon”, launched from bases in other countries.

Captain Azim Abdul-Rahman, who left the Afghan army 14 months ago after 12 years’ service, including in Helmand where he had served alongside British, American and Danish forces, spoke of his disappointment at the way the western withdrawal was carried out.

“There was no need to leave so quickly, this just gave the Taliban the signal to attack,” said Captain Abdul-Rahman, who now lives in Kabul. “I feel very sorry for the families of the British and American soldiers who were killed.

“I can understand if they ask why this sacrifice was made. For us Afghans the war now goes on, it is very sad.”