Heavy clashes in Helmand after Taliban offensive on provincial capital

Eighty Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting around Lashkargah city, the Afghan interior ministry said

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Eighty militants were killed when security forces mounted a counterattack after a major Taliban offensive on Lashkargah city in Helmand province on Sunday night, the Afghan interior ministry said.

Videos shared on social media by accounts associated with the Taliban showed fighters, along with many minors, allegedly marching to Helmand to take over one of Afghanistan’s largest provincial capitals.

Afghan security officials told The National that they had thwarted the attack. Afghan National Defence Security Forces "responded against the Taliban fighters' offensive, and in response killed 80 Taliban fighters", said Tariq Arian, the interior ministry spokesman.

“We do not have any reported civilian casualties, including children,” he said when asked about the children seen walking with the fighters in the videos. While the Taliban does recruit child soldiers, the children in the video do not appear to be among those used as fighters.

Omar Zwak, spokesman for the Helmand governor's office, confirmed the counter-offensive.

"We launched an operation last night, including air strikes [and] special forces in Nahre Siraj and Nawa area," Mr Zwak said.

“We are trying to get the situation back under control.”

The Afghan forces had moved towards Lashkargah gradually to avoid civilian casualties, he said.

The Taliban had captured parts of the city by Monday morning, but later updates from security force officials said they had reclaimed the majority of the capital and clearance operations were under way.

epa08737540 Afghans flee their villages after fighting intensified between Taliban militants and security forces, in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of restive Helmand province, Afghanistan, 12 October 2020. The clashes comes as both the Taliban and Afghan government are in the process of taking the peace talks forward in Doha, Qatar.  EPA/WATAN YAR

Witnesses described numerous battles between the Taliban and security forces in various parts of the city and surrounding districts overnight. The attacks forced many residents of the areas close to the fighting to flee their homes.

“Last night Taliban forces came to our neighbourhood and knocked on all our doors asking us to leave our houses,” said Abdul Jalil, a resident of Nad Ali district, about 25 kilometres from Lashkargah.

"They said if we didn't leave, we would lose our lives since they were planting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to fight the government forces," he told The National.

Mr Jalil, 23, with his family and neighbours, was forced to leave in the middle of the night and move towards the provincial capital to seek safety, but they found battles raging there too.

“The situation in Lashkargah is pretty bad, the Taliban has reached the city and taken over many checkpoints from the government forces,” he said.

Among the government assets captured in Helmand was an electricity substation in the Durahi area on the outskirts of Lashkargah. "The Taliban took control of the substation, and has taken four of its employees captive, along with eight security forces," Wahidullah Tawhidi, chief media director of state utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, told The National.

“They set fire to parts of the substation and cut off the Kajaki power lines leading into Lashkargah as well as Kandahar city,” he said, referring to one of the major hydroelectric power lines in the south.

Mr Tawhidi said the company was negotiating with the Taliban for the release of its employees.

US Gen Austin Scott Miller, commander of Resolute Support and US forces in Afghanistan, condemned the attack, which comes as the Afghan government holds talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar as part of a US-Taliban agreement to resolve the Afghan conflict.

"The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks," Gen Miller said.

Some security analysts believe the latest attacks could be the reaction of an emboldened Taliban to US President Donald Trump's recent tweet suggesting that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

"Attacks like this take days to plan and execute, however, the Taliban were already emboldened by the US-Taliban deal which they saw as a victory for themselves and a defeat for the United States. The tweet served as a morale booster," said Said Ibrahimi, a researcher at the Centre on International Co-operation.

In the tweet last week, Mr Trump said that all US forces serving in Afghanistan should be "home by Christmas”.

The message was welcomed by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who also extended the group's support for Mr Trump in the upcoming elections in the US. In a statement issued on social media he said: "Islamic Emirate welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for the implementation of the agreement signed between the [Taliban] and the US."

Others who have been tracking the development in the south suggested this attack was probably planned days ahead. “Our observations show there were already moves on the part of the Taliban in the province before the reports of early withdrawal,” said Ali Adili, a researcher at Afghan Analyst Network.

But while some violence was expected, an attack of this scale came as a surprise.

“There are increased instances of violence and small attacks but we did not have any indication showing an attempt on a provincial centre,” Mr Adili said.