LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- A bomb disposal squad comb the dusty streets of a southern Afghan city for hidden explosives and booby traps.
They are clearing the Bolan neighborhood of Lashkar Gah’s third district after recently reclaiming it from the Taliban. The teeming city of 200,00 residents is the provincial capital of Helmand.
This southern province, Afghanistan’s largest, has been the scene of considerable Taliban advances. Since the departure of most NATO troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the Taliban have overrun most districts in the arid, agricultural region and have virtually besieged Lashkar Gah for months.
Nasibullah Zaheen, an Afghan police officer, says their forces are now clearing hundreds of bombs and explosives found in Bolan after taking it back from the Taliban, who overran it six months ago. He says the Taliban had dug long tunnels in the neighborhood to store supplies and target Afghan military posts.
“God willing, the enemy cannot resist us any longer, and our forces are marching forward,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our forces have high morale. They are bravely making progress despite the enemy using civilian properties to attempt to hit them.”
Government forces say they are making advances in the neighboring district of Nad-e Ali and closing in on the district center.
Zahir Gul Muqbil, an officer of the Afghan Border Police in Helmand, says the advance has been slowed by the fear of civilian casualties from hidden mines and the Taliban’s use of civilian homes as trenches.
“As you can see, we have overrun their frontline and the enemy cannot be seen anywhere close,” he says. “The enemy are very meticulous about reinforcing their frontline trenches. But whenever we break through their formations, they quickly disappear into the countryside.”
Nad-e Ali’s ravaged crumbling mud houses, dry fields, and burnt trees have formed a backdrop to intense fighting. With weapon fire still echoing in the distance, Ali Mohammad, a farmer, says there is a glimmer of hope now that the Afghan forces have reclaimed their village from the Taliban.
“We now think that the end of our miseries might be in sight,” he said.
Gul Mohammad, another villager, says they feel safe under the shadow of government forces.
“One of my brothers works for the police, so the Taliban were very hard on us,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They tortured us, beat us and did everything to harass us.”
Provincial spokesman Omar Zhwak claimed that the government forces have also made advances in Garamser district as part of a broader offensive named Maiwand 17.
“We have made advances and have killed numerous fighters loyal to the [armed] opposition,” he said.
In a statement on March 12, Afghan forces claimed to have killed 31 Taliban militants, including a local commander. Afghan special forces also freed up to 32 people, including four policemen, from Taliban captivity in Nad-e Ali late on March 12.
But the Taliban claimed it was a facility for drug addicts. “They thought they were raiding a mujahedin prison where army and police personnel were being detained,” A Taliban statement said on March 13. “However, they misjudged, and none of the people taken away had any ties with the Kabul regime (Afghan government).”
It was, however, not possible to independently verify the claims made by the warring sides.
During the past two years, the Taliban’s advances in Helmand have been extensive. From controlling just two remote districts in late 2014, the Taliban had overrun most of the region’s 14 districts by the end of last year.
Most of the world’s illegal opium is grown in Helmand. At nearly 60,000 square kilometers, the province is comparable in size to Switzerland. The province borders Pakistan and is in close proximity to Iran. During the past quarter-century, Helmand has been a key recruiting ground and revenue source for the Taliban.
Kabul is keen on reclaiming the province from Taliban clutches. Earlier this year, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah promised a new push against the insurgents.
“You will soon see the results of our resolve,” he told provincial leaders.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.