ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Officials in Afghanistan said Monday security forces were locked in fierce battles with Taliban insurgents to keep them from capturing the capital of the country’s southern Helmand province.
The U.S. military confirmed it had also conducted several targeted strikes in Helmand to defend Afghan security forces against the Taliban onslaught, urging the insurgents to immediately halt their offensives.
Several days of fighting for control of Lashkargah is said to have left dozens of combatants dead on both sides with civilians also caught in the crossfire.
Residents in the embattled Afghan city told VOA the Taliban had made territorial gains during overnight clashes in and around Lashkargah. The insurgents control or contest most of the districts in Helmand.
The violence rages even as Afghan government and Taliban envoys engage in U.S.-brokered direct peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar, where the insurgents maintain their political office.
A provincial government official told VOA that ongoing counteroffensives by Afghan commando forces, backed by air power, have halted Taliban advances, killing and injuring dozens of rebel fighters.
But Omar Zawak would not say whether the lost ground has been retaken. He confirmed the death of only four Afghan personnel in late Sunday night clashes.
Taliban sources claimed insurgents inflicted heavy casualties on government forces. It was not possible to independently verify battlefield claims by either side.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Monday evening they have simply retaken areas the insurgents had lost to Afghan forces a few months ago.
A health official in Helmand told VOA on condition of anonymity that scores of injured people, including civilians and security forces, had been brought to the hospital in Lashkargah from the battle zone in the past week.
The fighting has displaced many civilian families and caused power outages in the city and surrounding districts, residents and officials said.
“The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country,” U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, who commands international forces in Afghanistan, said.
“It is not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks,” a military statement quoted Miller as saying.
The general was referring to the February 29 deal the United States signed with the insurgent group aimed at ending the 19-year-old Afghan war.
The accord immediately started the process of withdrawing roughly 12,000 U.S. troops from what has become America’s longest war.
“That came down to, call it 8,500, 8,600 or so by mid-summer, and we're on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly,” U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in an interview Sunday.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced last week via Twitter that all American troops should be home by Christmas.
Speaking to U.S. broadcaster NPR, however, Milley declined to speculate on further troop drawdown plans and their possible impact on the security situation in Afghanistan or the peace talks under way in Doha.
“It's a conditions-based plan, and right now, the only number that's publicly out there that I am aware of in terms of any sort of official number is 4,500 in the not-too-distant future by November,” Milley said.
The U.S.-Taliban deal called for all American and allied forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. In return, the insurgent group pledged to cut ties with the al-Qaida terror network and prevent Afghan soil from becoming a hub for transnational terrorism in the future.
While the foreign troop withdrawal is under way, the historic intra-Afghan peace talks, which began a month ago in the Qatari capital, have been deadlocked for days because of disputes between the two negotiating teams over “procedural” matters.