LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan – The Taliban has begun its offensive with rapid attacks against Afghan security forces in a restive corner of Afghanistan after suffering early setbacks in northern provinces.
Several key districts of southern Helmand Province have been the scene of intense fighting after a major Taliban offensive failed to capture a major population center in northern Kunduz Province, which has witnessed the most intense fighting so far this year.
Local sources said at least 22 policemen and soldiers were killed in Helmand's northern Nawzad district on May 25.
Officials said at least five soldiers were killed and six more injured in an attack on four checkpoints in the neighboring district of Sangin on May 24.
Helmand officials said the uptick in violence in the region's five northern districts -- Nawzad, Sangin, Nahr-e Saraj, Kajaki, and Musa Qalah -- can be attributed to the Taliban's annual spring offensive.
Deputy provincial governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar said the Taliban wants to score major battlefield advantages over the summer.
"This is the traditional fighting season, and the enemy is throwing everything it has [into capturing territory]," Rasulyar told Radio Free Afghanistan. "They are doing this at the behest of their masters. But after inflicting heavy losses on them in our northern provinces, our security forces will thwart them here, too."
Rasulyar said that despite fighting off the early insurgent attacks, Helmand's forces are braced for tough times ahead. "The morale of our forces is high. But this is a war, and it's natural that both sides will suffer casualties. So far our losses have been much smaller compared with those of the enemy," he said.
Helmand's lawmakers, however, want to see changes in the provincial civilian and military leadership.
Bashir Ahmed Shakir, a member of Helmand's provincial council's security committee, says the region faces the twin threats of the Taliban trying to conquer territory and the drug mafia undermining security to facilitate its narcotics trade.
"The central government [in Kabul] needs to pay greater attention to our province. Helmand's northern districts are under constant attack and are under threat [of falling to the insurgents]," he said.
Another provincial lawmaker, Attaullah Afghan, said the government's failure to prevent increased poppy cultivation earlier this year has created a lot of incentives for violence.
"The Taliban and their allies now have a lot to fight for," he said.
For more than two decades, the fertile irrigated valleys of Helmand have produced most of the world's opium and heroin. It borders Pakistan and is close to Iran, which turns it into a lucrative route for the drugs trade.
In the 1990s, conflicts between strongmen in the region fostered the rise of the Taliban. The insurgents still count the province as one of their main recruiting grounds.
The Taliban's ideological zeal and drug trafficking have kept Helmand on the brink. Tens of thousands of international troops, mostly British and American, failed to rein in Taliban violence, poppy cultivation, and drug trafficking.
Farhad Dawari, a community worker in the provincial capital, said the ongoing attacks have already displaced hundreds of families and the region's civilians are again bracing for another violent summer.
"The militants are ascendant here. They have now acquired heavy weapons and are eager to fight on," he said. "This is why our police are being beaten every day."
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.