Taliban close in on Helmand capital as UK Afghan mission ends
As Boris Johnson announced the end of Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters pressed in on the capital of Helmand province, once the centre of the UK’s presence there.
Militants are less than a mile from Lashkar Gah, now also home to tens of thousands of people who have fled the fighting or Taliban rule across the rest of the province, local officials said.
“There is no security in Lashkar Gah, the situation is quite dangerous,” Majid Akhundzada, a member of the Helmand provincial council, told the Guardian. “All the districts have either fallen or the fight is ongoing. The government is in a weak, defensive position.”
Helmand has 14 districts, and only Lashkar Gah is still largely under control of government forces. Troops loyal to Kabul also hold the centres of four districts, Kajaki, Nad Ali, Marjah and Garmsir, and have isolated army bases in some areas including Sangin, but these have to be supplied by air transport.
Soldiers are trapped in these outposts, with the dead and wounded being transported too late, if at all, according to locals.
Mohammad Zaman Hamdard, a spokesperson for Helmand’s police chief, said government forces including commandos, backed by air support, were regaining ground. He said large numbers of young people who formed unofficial militias to protect the regional capital were supporting security forces.
“The biggest problem is the numerous mines in the area that we are working to deactivate. Much work has been done. The air force has also been strengthened. The Taliban have suffered heavy casualties,” he said.
Many of those displaced from rural homes do not have decent shelter or enough to eat, said Abdul Haq Zwakman, a civil activist. “The city is under siege, hundreds of displaced families are living in hunger and starvation,” he said. “We never imagined we’d be in this situation. The Taliban’s success is greater than ever, it’s making rapid progress, they capture weapons and ammunition, have a large manpower force, and control a large geographic area.
“We are not far away from people starting big protests against both the government and Taliban, because neither side benefits the people. They only create problems for them and pursue their own goals.”
Hundreds of British and American soldiers died fighting the Taliban in Helmand, a hub of opium production and insurgency. Since the foreign troops’ departure in 2014, the militants have slowly consolidated control over many of its districts, including Sangin.
Haji Wali Mohammad, a tribal elder from Sangin, said at least half the population had fled to Lashkar Gah. A few hundred soldiers were clinging on to a base, he added.
“[Foreign] supporters left us with only a weak government, they failed to build a strong institutions, prevent corruption and enforce the law,” he said. He called on the international community to support the peace process.
Zwakman, the activist, praised the work of British troops and the civilian provincial reconstruction team building roads and other infrastructure, but said they had left too soon.
“Without the help of the British and other foreign countries, we could not develop here. Unfortunately, these countries hastily decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. Because we lacked security, the British troops should have remained to some extent.”
Akhundzada warned that without help against the resurgent Taliban, Helmand could become a centre of extremism again, despite billions of dollars of aid and the loss of so many soldiers’ lives.
Government forces trying to defend remote outposts are running out of food and ammunition. “How can they resist under these conditions?” he said. “The government has failed to carry out its plans and responsibilities.
“If no serious action is taken, another catastrophe would ensue across the country. The international forces that spent so much money here in Helmand would not be able to contain it.”