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Residents Fear Taliban Takeover Of Vital Afghan Provincial Capital

Afghan security officials move injured victims from the scene of a suicide bomb attack that targeted a convoy of foreign forces in Lashkar Gah in November 2015.
Afghan security officials move injured victims from the scene of a suicide bomb attack that targeted a convoy of foreign forces in Lashkar Gah in November 2015.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The sound of Afghan Army howitzers firing at invisible Taliban positions serves as a constant reminder to the residents of a beleaguered southern Afghan city of impending danger.

The nearly 150,000 residents of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, are bracing for the worst as the Taliban turn their sights on the city after overrunning large swaths of rural Helmand last year.

"We hear lots of firing and artillery fire every night. We are very worried over the prospects of Lashkar Gah falling [to the Taliban]," said Niazuddin Kaliwal, a resident of Helmand's capital.

Abdul Rahim, another resident, said Helmand's authorities aren't taking the threat of an insurgent takeover seriously enough.

"We can't understand what they are thinking or doing, but the war has been knocking on Lashkar Gah's doors for more than three months now," he said.

Rohullah Ilham, a human rights activist, agreed.

"We can sense that the fighting is creeping closer, but our security forces seem to lack coordination despite mounting insecurity," he said. "Everyone in the city is now worried over the prospect of Lashkar Gah falling."

Since launching their spring offensive, insurgents now control or contest 11 of Helmand's 15 districts. They are now pushing south from the recently conquered Musa Qala and Nawzad districts into Lashkar Gah. In recent days, at least 40 Afghan soldiers were killed in the Nahr-e Saraj and Nade-e Ali districts bordering Lashkar Gah.

With this, the insurgents are clearly positioning themselves to control Helmand, Afghanistan's largest province, which borders Pakistan and is located close to Iran.

The rural province has been central to the Taliban movement since its emergence in 1994. The region is a key recruiting ground for the insurgents, and its status as the world's leading opium and heroin producer can generate resources necessary for an expanding Taliban offensive this year.

Lawmaker Bashir Ahmad Shakir oversees security affairs on Helmand's provincial council. He said the insurgents are moving methodically to capture Lashkar Gah.

"The recent losses tell us that we might lose a lot during the impending fighting season, which is expected to begin this month," he said. "Even now, enemy fighters have infiltrated the city. I am afraid we are going to see fighting on every street. Unfortunately, this will cause a lot of civilian suffering and mass exodus."

The fall of Lashkar Gah will be a huge issue for Afghanistan's national unity government, which was embarrassed by a temporary Taliban takeover of the northern Kunduz city in September.

A source at Helmand's governor office who request anonymity said there are plans to thwart the insurgent offensive by attacking their supply lines and rear bases. The source said security forces are keen on preventing civilian casualties by avoiding fighting in populated regions.

Meanwhile, Lashkar Gah's residents are preparing for the worst. While the city's dusty streets are crowded and clogged with traffic in the mornings, the city is virtually empty by late afternoon when shopkeepers hurriedly close up their businesses and everyone prefers to stay within the relative safety of their homes.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.