By Tim Lister, CNN
Heavy fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces has continued in the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah. The Taliban now control several districts of the city, according to local journalists contacted by CNN.
The Afghan military reinforced its presence in the city on Saturday, bringing in special forces, according to a tweet from the 215 Corps, an army unit. It also carried out airstrikes against Taliban positions.
Lashkar Gah sits on strategic routes in all directions, including the highway between Kandahar and Herat and important agricultural areas to the south of the city. The Taliban has long had a strong presence in Helmand province, including around the capital, but has not occupied any part of the capital since being overthrown in 2001.
If Lashkar Gah were to fall to the Taliban it would be the first of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals to be lost by the government. But several others are surrounded by the Taliban, which also controls several major highways across Afghanistan.
The Taliban accused a “mercenary enemy” of killing civilians in an airstrike on the seventh district of Lashkar Gah, an area that’s seen heavy clashes. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that “many houses were destroyed and people suffered great financial losses.” There was no way to confirm the Taliban claim.
One journalist in the city told CNN Sunday that clashes were continuing in the first and seventh districts, and the Taliban had taken the ninth. He said government forces now only controlled one district.
The Afghan military has spoken of heavy fighting in Lashkar Gah, with the 215 Corps tweeting late Saturday that 51 Taliban were killed and 40 others wounded in operations on the outskirts of the city.
In its latest bulletin, the Afghan Ministry of Defense reports fighting in 13 provinces and says 254 Taliban have been killed in the past day.
The province of Herat — in northwest Afghanistan — is one that has seen heavy fighting. The Ministry of Defense tweeted Sunday: “Hundreds of special forces arrived in Herat province! These forces will increase offensive operations and suppress the Taliban in Herat. The security situation in the province will improve soon.”
In an apparent acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation in Herat, the Ministry of the Interior said that the deputy interior minister General Abdul Rahman Rahman had arrived there with police special forces.
Videos that appeared Saturday indicate that the Taliban now control the road linking the capital — also called Herat — with its airport. A local journalist told CNN Sunday that the Taliban has control of much of Goazara district near the airport, and has also taken Karoakh to the east.
The airport itself remains in government hands.
US withdraws, Taliban steps in
After nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, the US military, at President Joe Biden’s direction, is in the final stages of withdrawing troops from the country, bringing an end to America’s longest war.
The Pentagon has said about 95% of US troops have left and the Taliban have rapidly expanded their presence to large swaths of country. The speed at which Afghan security forces have lost control to the Taliban has shocked many and led to concerns that the capital, Kabul, could be next to fall. All foreign forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by August 31.
According to the Long War Journal, a US non-profit which tracks control of territory in Afghanistan, the Taliban now controls 13 of 16 districts in Herat province. Most of its gains came in the month of July.
Nationwide, the Taliban controls 223 districts, with 116 contested and the government holding 68, according to the Long War Journal, whose calculations tally with CNN’s estimates. It says 17 of 34 provincial capitals are directly threatened by the Taliban.
The vast majority of Taliban gains have come since the US drawdown of forces began in May, after President Biden’s announcement that all US combat forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of August.
Bill Roggio, who edits the Long War Journal, said Saturday that “the withdrawal of US air assets, which provided more than 80% of the combat power to battle the Taliban, and civilian contractors to provide maintenance, along with combat attrition, has put an enormous strain on the Afghan Air Force.”
The worsening security situation across Afghanistan in the wake of foreign troop withdrawal and Taliban advances, has forced an estimated 294,000 from their homes since January, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on July 21, bringing the total internally displaced to more than 3.5 million.
In the month of June alone, 77,000 people were displaced, the UNHCR said.
The UN warned in a new report issued on July 26 that civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 reached “record levels,” including “a particularly sharp increase in killings and injuries since May when international military forces began their withdrawal and the fighting intensified.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented 5,183 civilian casualties (1,659 killed and 3,524 injured) since the start of 2021 — a 47% increase compared with the same period in 2020.
“Without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since UNAMA records began” in 2009, the UN said in a statement.
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