Afghan security forces are engaged in fierce battles with Taliban insurgents over a besieged southern provincial capital that stands in the way of the Taliban's attempt to carve a direct military route into central Afghanistan.
Taliban militants have blocked the critical Kandahar-Uruzgan highway, leaving the city of Tarin Kot in central Uruzgan province with few Afghan enforcements and dwindling supplies. Several police checkpoints on the highway have fallen to the Taliban, but U.S. bombers have been aiding Afghan forces.
If the Taliban efforts succeed, even temporarily, analysts say that would be a significant defeat for the Afghan government, giving the insurgents easy access to several nearby provinces. The Kabul government's forces have been making steady gains against militants in southern Afghanistan, and are trying to contain any Taliban move toward the capital.
"Tarin Kot is a strategic location for the Taliban," Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban expert told VOA. "They want to create a safe corridor for their movement to central and northern parts of Afghanistan."
Taliban close to city center
Armed with rocket launchers, Taliban fighters in recent days overran several government outposts, including one on Thursday that is a kilometer from the provincial governor's office in the center of the city, local sources told VOA.
The commander of Afghan armed forces in the southern zone, Major General Daoud Shah Wafadar, told VOA that 89 security checkpoints in the province have fallen to the Taliban since fighting began this month. Afghan Special Forces led by General Abdur Razeq have arrived in Tarin Kot to help suppress the Taliban attacks, according to Afghan media reports.
The battles intensified days after Afghan security forces claimed to have repulsed a major Taliban assault on the capital. Both sides have suffered heavy casualties, and at least eight Afghan policemen died in an errant U.S. airstrike Monday.
According to security officials in Uruzgan, 50 or more Taliban insurgents have been killed since Thursday night. At least 22 Afghan security personnel also died.
An Afghan security official told VOA's Afghan service on the condition of anonymity that the Taliban kidnapped and killed nine soldiers. Their bodies were dumped throughout the city, according to local residents.
Uruzgan police chief dismissed
The government in Kabul removed the police chief of Uruzgan for "incompetent management," according to an Uruzgan provincial official who asked not to be identified, after the chief ordered police personnel at several checkpoints to flee without showing any resistance to the Taliban.
A spokesperson for the provincial governor told VOA that three weeks of battle have displaced thousands of residents. Others are being used as human shields by the Taliban, he added, a move that compels Afghan forces to slow their counterattacks.
If Tarin Kot falls to the Taliban, the militants will multiply their regional influence, analysts say. Uruzgan province borders Kandahar, Helmand and Ghazni provinces, where the Taliban already have a public presence.
A possible Taliban target is the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam, which generates 33 megawatts of power and irrigates 1,800 square kilometers of agricultural land. The Afghan government, with U.S. funds, has several projects underway to expand the dam's capacity.
Effect on opium trade
Southwest of Tarin Kot, Taliban launched multiple attacks on Helmand's capital, Lashkargah, after capturing several of its districts last month. Helmand, the center of opium poppy production in Afghanistan, accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's opium.
"They [Taliban] also want to control the Sangin district, where the global prices of opium are determined," said Taliban watcher Muzhda, referring to a key area for opium smuggling.
Tarin Kot also borders restive Zabul province, which borders tribal regions in Pakistan where Taliban militants have been receiving help from foreign fighters. The insurgents also pass through Zabul province area as they bring their wounded fighters into Pakistan for treatment, according to Afghan government and media reports.