LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The sound of Afghan Army howitzers firing at advancing Taliban fighters has kept the residents of a beleaguered southern Afghan city awake for days.
A lawmaker now says that Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province and home to nearly 150,000 residents, might fall to the Taliban within days.
“If we don’t get air support and reinforcements, Lashkar Gah and Helmand will fall within 48 hours,” Karim Atal, the head Helmand's provincial council, said on May 30. “It is a mistake to view the ongoing fighting in Helmand as routine.”
Atal says the overwhelmed forces in Helmand can now defend themselves for just two more days at most. “The central government [in Kabul] needs to pay full attention or else Helmand will slip out of our hands completely,” he said.
Over the past year, the Taliban have gradually extended their control over most parts of 11 of Helmand's 15 districts. Before announcing their spring offensive, the Taliban put Lashkar Gah under a virtual lockdown.
A source in Helmand’s police, who requested anonymity, says casualty rates in many Helmand districts have dramatically increased and fighting has flared up on a dozen rural frontlines in recent days.
Abdul Tawab Qureshi, a military expert in Helmand, says Afghan forces are paying a high price for failing to attack the Taliban while they were busy harvesting illicit poppy crops earlier this month. Poppy cultivation and drug trafficking are the major funding source for the insurgents in Helmand.
“We urged the government forces to abandon their defensive positions and attack the Taliban fighters who were busy harvesting poppies,” he said. “But they preferred to remain bunkered, which encouraged the Taliban to mount a bold offensive.”
Qureshi says an immediate influx of reinforcements could still salvage the situation. ‘If we don’t see special forces and air support within the next 48 hours, Helmand will be in big trouble.”
Government spokesmen, however, downplayed the threat. Helmand’s provincial spokesman, Omar Zwak, acknowledges that government forces have suffered high casualties in recent days.
“The enemy increased its attacks on our posts and positions, but our military commanders have been ordered to send reinforcements to secure them,” he said.
In Kabul, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri made similar claims.
“Lashkar Gah or another area [in Helmand] is not going to fall, but we acknowledge the [forward] movement of the enemy in Nahr-e-Saraj, Greshek, and Nad-e Ali districts,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Now our troops are there and our air force has also begun [sorties].”
Local officials say some 32,000 Afghan forces are now serving in Helmand but they are spread across remote battlefields on nearly 58,000 square kilometers -- an area bigger than Switzerland.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.